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BWW Review: Iconic Cabaret Singer Baby Jane Dexter Keeps Raising The Bar With Her Compelling New Show IT'S PERSONAL at the Metropolitan Room

Baby Jane Dexter is an enigma. Almost everything one can say about her has been said. She's been a nightclub star for many years in a career that's been all over the map (including a stint on Broadway in the original Hair.) Yet, the idea of being a conventional singer eludes her. And, aren't we the lucky ones for that. She's played every major venue from coast to coast, and shared the stage with the best of them. Critics have compared her to everyone from Janis Joplin to Sarah Vaughan. She's been honored by those critics and peers many times (she received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs earlier this year.) She's also influenced countless singers on the club circuit, and directors and teachers regularly bring students to her shows to experience her unique ability to truthfully interpret a lyric. She's faced a myriad of major health challenges and continues to bounce back. And the best part: She's still here.

In her current show at the Metropolitan Room, It's Personal, Dexter once again reaches beyond the footlights and embraces her idolaters as only she can. In doing so, she makes them cry, laugh out loud, and view life with a different slant. After all these years, she's still packing them in and raising the bar. Her gravitas and strong self-belief make for an exciting and unique hour of cabaret. Dexter's joy at giving is evident throughout this new show. Serious minded but never preachy, this is an artist enjoying herself as much as her audience is.

After decades of singing, her voice is a shade darker but remains remarkably un-ravaged by time. She has a throaty contralto that retains a tender suppleness with a remarkable timbre. Like other idiosyncratic artists (think Billie Holiday), Dexter's strength is in her naked honesty rather than vocal gymnastics. This is obvious throughout her set that almost implodes near the end when she begins with a whisper the first of two blissful gems which have become her staples-the melancholic "For All We Know" (Coots-Lewis) the 1934 song that seamlessly segues into her trademark, self-descriptive anthem from 1992, "Everybody Hurts" (REM). . . When your day is night alone, hold on, hold on. If you feel like letting go, hold on. When you think you've had too much of this life, well hang on; cause everybody hurts.

It's Personal is an eclectic program that spans the decades in song filled with hard-edged and fun highlights that only Baby Jane could pull off. The authority and sincerity she brings to these songs as she makes them her own is evident starting with the Cy Coleman/Peggy Lee/Bill Schlinger declaration, "I'm In Love Again" into Abbey Lincoln's sassy "Painted Lady" and then Billy Roy's sardonic "Bargain Day." By then, she has the enrapt audience in the palm of her hands in a way that no other cabaret performer can match. It all comes from a place of soulful authenticity; an entity missing in far too many shows these days.

By the time Dexter gets around to telling the sordid story of "The House Of the Rising Sun" (Ironically based on a traditional Old English song), the room is hushed and mesmerized as this piquant tale of degradation and remorse unfolds. This is a song that has been tackled by numerous artists over the decades including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (on their 1961 respective debut albums), as well as Glenn Yarborough, Frankie Laine, Miriam Makeba, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie (in 1944.) Of course, the British rock group The Animals had a huge international hit with the song in 1964. Most recently in cabaret, Carole J. Bufford has made it one of her staples. One cannot sing this song unless they've walked on the wild side and Dexter nails it. You know she's been close to that house of secrets and ill repute. Her delivery is as close to definitive as you're likely to find. Never has it sounded more painfully real.

Her story continues with an upbeat "Got To Get You Into My Life" (Lennon/McCarthy), and then rivets with intense ruminations about a pitiful woman in Lance Horne's prayerful "Orpheus" (from the film The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone): Give me a word and I'll hear it. Give me a look and I'll see it. Give me a kiss and I'll taste it. Give me the truth and I'll take it." This story-suite is shattering in its raw emotion. Cole Porter's "Experiment" leads into a fun turn with an unexpected "Everyone Is Gay" (Axel-Vaccarino). Other highlights include her going so freestyle on "Birth Of the Blues" (DaSylva/Brown/Henderson) that she almost reinvents it while noting her perplexity at critics' referring to her as a blues singer. A light and airy treatment of the traditional "Blue Moon" (Rodgers-Hart) is sheer fun. Her Musical Director behind all of this is the incomparable Ross Patterson. Supporting Baby Jane for almost 25 years, he accompanies her with a mix of artistry, subtlety and musical majesty that is unmatched.

Dexter's grasp of traditional and pop songs can be astonishing. She treats each piece of her set with similar weight and respect. One doesn't have to love every song she sings to appreciate the depth and intelligence of this major force in cabaret. Like the late Julie Wilson, whom she refers to as "missing" at one of her shows for the first time in a quarter century, Baby Jane Dexter remains a lesson in how to get it right. Artists frequently bandy about the words "soul" and "passion" to compensate for their blatant lack of either. Few possess both like Dexter, and this latest Metropolitan Room gig is one of the prime examples of her definitive craft and unique style that have made her a cabaret legend.

It's Personal starring Baby Jane Dexter runs at the Metropolitan Room on Saturdays, November 21 and 28, and Friday, December 4. All shows at 7:00. Reservations: 212-206- 0440 or www.metropolitanroom.com


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