BWW Review: JOAN RYAN Stakes Her New York Claim at The Green Room 42
While watching Joan Ryan sing, it is entirely possible to think that there is no person alive for whom singing brings more joy. Speaking logically, there are certainly many people who derive as much happiness from singing, but when engaged in the act of watching Joan Ryan sing, all logic is rendered useless, because Joan Ryan singing is nothing but absolute bliss. It is impossible to watch her perform without smiling, without being made happy, or without falling a little bit in love, a fact made clear by the throng of admirers who packed The Green Room 42 when she made her debut there over the weekend.
A longtime resident of Los Angeles, Ms. Ryan tells her audience that she recently relocated to New York City, and the combination of being in Manhattan and being on the cabaret stages of NYC has made her feel like she is finally home. She certainly looks at home in her elegant refinery, her six-piece band behind her, and her microphone in hand, which is only natural because she has spent her life on stages sharing a wondrously rangey voice with awestruck audiences who might not believe that such incredible power could come from so tiny a lady. Rather like a porcelain doll, Joan Ryan stands before the crowd, smiling innocently with her delicate features and girlish whisper of a speaking voice, telling stories of her life, and then she opens her mouth to sing and a tsunami of sound fills the room, and the sound is a most beautiful one, crystal clear, as pure and crisp as a newly fallen powder of alpine snow. It is, in fact, quite possible for people witnessing Ryan for the first time to be a bit shocked, which is part of the fun of being at a Joan Ryan show, and Saturday night was no exception.
Ms. Ryan's Green Room 42 performance is a new act for the star of the cult musical Ruthless, and she and director Will Nunziata make sure that it is one filled with laughter and joy, clearly a reflection of her current state of mind. From the moment she appears at the back of the house, Ryan makes sure that her audience knows what's in store for them with an arrangement of "Feeling Good" that is blissfully different than the one everyone in the world has been singing for a few years. Chic, stylish, and oh-so-confident, Ryan weaves her way through the crowd and onto the stage, and for some sixty minutes, she wows the crowd with one spectacular arrangement after another of songs we have all heard before but might as well be hearing for the first time. Indeed, the entire show is like watching someone be born, or, in this case, re-born. There is a newness, a freshness about Ms. Ryan, evocative of someone stepping into the light for the first time; it is a nebulous mood that is cast over the room because all know her long history as a performer, but this is an artist who seems newly baptized by some mission statement informed by an all-encompassing combination of grounding confidence, enthralling risk, and irrepressible defiance. So bull at the gate is Ryan's forward motion during the show that at times her overflowing energy gets ahead of her and she loses a word or a phrase in her song, and her besotted audience stays with her, lovingly forgiving the mistake because this new, funny, excitable Joan is such a joy to behold. Indeed, one of the most exciting parts of Saturday night's performance was watching Joan Ryan, only four songs away from the end of her show, turn to guitarist Steve Bargonetti and ask if they aren't completely off track, only to start "The Way He Makes Me Feel" over again, the second attempt at the song becoming more rich and replete with emotion and interpretive skill than the aborted first attempt. To see a musical artist so devoted to her craft and dedicated to her audience bring her personal humanity to her work is a gift beyond compare. Speaking personally, this writer would rather watch a hundred singers own that a song isn't working and start the number over, than watch one perfect performance by the world's greatest singer who is reading off of an iPad. When Joan Ryan is onstage, there is no iPad, no music stand full of cheat sheets - she is up on the high wire, taking all the risks, with only the exceptional net of support that is her band and her director.
Mr. Nunziata has taken great care of Ms. Ryan for this outing, adapting his directing style to suit her performance style in a successful effort to create a show that is authentic to her. Nunziata, a director whose nightclub work is often lauded for having a theatrical feel that includes a storyline arc for the artist to take, has recognized that Joan Ryan has spent her life on huge concert stages and her gift is in bringing the songs that she loves to audiences that want nothing more than to sit in a room and bask in the glory of her four octaves. The change from big venue to small being enough for any one artist to undertake, Nunziata imposes no arc on Ms. Ryan but, instead, directs her as a concert performer, helping her to create a good old-fashioned nightclub act, the kind one might expect from a legendary lady of song like Julie London or Eydie Gorme. No storyline is necessary because Joan Ryan brings a new story with each new song, immersing herself in the soulfulness of "Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home" or the driving force that is "Some People," aided by Ron Abel's breathtaking arrangements. By allowing and assisting Joan Ryan in her quest to make each song its' own entity, Nunziata has given the jewel a setting in which she can shine as genuinely as possible, playing not only to her strengths but to her mission statement as an artist. It is a wise and elegant choice to make, for both artists.
Particular standouts for this writer on an evening filled with musical delicacies were the comedy feast of "Belt-aholic" and a stunning "I Don't Want to Know" with a hypnotic arrangement that suited Ms. Ryan like a velvet glove enclosed by a baguette bracelet. No moment in the show, though, could be as intimate, as heartfelt, as personal as Ms. Ryan's encore, written by Billy Joel and arranged by Nunziata and musical director Phil Reno. It was a perfect way to end a night of music painstakingly structured to show audiences who Joan Ryan is, what she is about, and how deeply the music lives within her. When an artist puts his or her self out on the line in so open and vulnerable and eloquent a way, there is only thing for a witness from the stands to respond:
Welcome home, Joan.
Photos by Stephen Mosher