BWW Review: Jen Fellman Sells Out 54 Below for FORBIDDEN DRIVE CD Release
If you look at the cd jacket of Jen Fellman's debut disc FORBIDDEN DRIVE, you would probably think she was a rock singer -- at least that's what I and my date thought when we showed up at 54 Below to check out the cd release celebration on October 19th. Neither of us familiar with Ms. Fellman's work and excited about being introduced to a new artist, we settled into our seats and prepared for the lights to go down and the announcer to welcome the artist to the stage. When that happened, when the announcer announced, when Fellman took that stage, she didn't look like a rock singer anymore, in her chic black and white evening gown and upswept hair. It turns out we were wrong: Jen Fellman is a rock star, but Jen Fellman is not a rock singer.
On October 19th, Jen Fellman stood center stage at Feinstein's/54 Below, opened her mouth and effortlessly let loose her best Metropolitan Opera, and my plus one and I turned to one another, looking like cartoon characters whose eyes were popping out of their faces. In utter shock and absolute awe of the petite beauty whose voice was bigger than the entire room in which we sat, we found ourselves unable to do anything but just sit and stare, and let the glorious sounds filling the room wash over us. This was one of those happy surprises in life that makes a person appreciate the element of surprise, and discovering something new.
Ms. Fellman's act at 54 Below is, almost literally, an exact replica of her cd FORBIDDEN DRIVE. In one hour (give or take) she sang through the cd, only once switching the order of two songs, and then gave an encore that isn't on the album (but people who were there wish the brilliantly performed "La Vie En Rose" WAS on this recording, believe me). During that hour she used her considerable talent to enthrall and entertain, with a little assist from some of the greatest songwriters of all time. Indeed, except for her own original composition, every song was one I already knew and loved before walking in the door. Aside from her talent and theirs, though, Jen Fellman had a secret weapon, an ace in the hole, and he is her music director and arranger, Bob Goldstone. Mr. Goldstone's arrangements of songs like "Wherever He Ain't" and "I Get Along Without You Very Well" go beyond the usual artistry of a musical director and into the area one might label genius. Together, Goldstone and Fellman have found a sweet spot at the intersection where her musical storytelling and his musical guidance meet, bringing a listener to one of the magical places that music has the potential of taking them - the place of Nancy LaMott and Christopher Marlowe, or Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch. This is a musical union giving rise to performances that boggle the mind and stop the breath, and Ms. Fellman brought every ounce of her acting ability to each impeccable note and every splendid bit of phrasing. This is one exceptional soprano, all elegance, and sophistication, her million-watt smile winning over the audience as much as the gorgeous high notes she hit with oh, so much ease.
If I'm being honest, I don't listen to operatic sopranos. I appreciate them very much, but given a choice I am rarely likely to go that direction; but I will be making a purchase of Jen Fellman's cd FORBIDDEN DRIVE because her singing of these songs is just that pretty, and those arrangements, that memorable. Also, though, her original song "New York Treasure" is a treasure in itself, and is destined to become one of the new standards, with the best in the business opting to record their own version of it, in all its' complex and character-laden glory, as complex and character-laden as New York herself. The performance of the song was reason enough to see the show, as it is reason enough to buy the cd.
In as much as I loved listening to Ms. Fellman sing (magnificently backed up by Victor Goncalves on accordion, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, Charle Pillow on reed, Damien Bassman on drums, and Mr. Goldstone, as well as guest singer Jacqueline Keeley), as likable as I found her, I cannot say that the evening was a complete hit, for there was a miss, and for me, it's a big one. Ms. Fellman's show had a really lovely, engaging script to it: it told a story, it had a through-line, it related to the songs and the journey that the cd is designed to take the listener on - and since the dialogue presented is not likely to be included on the cd, it is all rhetoric that the audience welcomes. I only wish that Ms. Fellman had a more relaxed, natural way of speaking to the audience. As smooth and mellifluous as the singing was is how awkward and rehearsed the dialogue felt. There was an almost complete lack of spontaneity to her conversation with the audience - I say almost because there were one or two moments when she just spoke to us, and we saw the woman behind the voice. Those one or two moments, though, were few and far between and the wall of rehearsed rhetoric put a divide between the artist and the audience. One of the reasons people love to see people perform in a cabaret setting is the intimacy, the ability to look in the eye of the performer and feel like they are right there with you. If an artist is going to stand on a stage and look over the heads of the audience when they sing, if they are going to recite their script as though they have to have every word just right, they may as well be reading a teleprompter from the stage at Madison Square Garden, the least intimate room to play, at least in New York City. I liked Ms. Fellman so much that I found myself wishing that she would, mentally, drop the script, drop the act, put on the jeans and t-shirt on the cover of her cd, and sit on the foot of the stage and talk to me, sing to me, and tell me the fascinating story of climbing a mountain to get over an ex, but really tell it to ME. It's more than obvious that Jen Fellman has singing talents, one might even say super singing talents; but if all an audience is going to get is a carbon copy of the cd being sold and some over-rehearsed nightclub patter, there is no reason for the audience to come to the show. They can get that by buying the cd, pouring a glass of wine, and hitting "play."
BUT. If they did that, they would be missing the joy of hearing those extraordinary notes sung live. And they would miss the pleasure of seeing Jen Fellman's million-watt smile. So even if Jen Fellman doesn't perfect her nightclub patter, even if she likes it just the way it is and dismisses my opinion, she is still an artist worth seeing live, and I wouldn't dream of discouraging anyone from seeing her live, because with Jen Fellman at the mic, the music is going to be operatically otherworldly and gloriously gorgeous.
Photos of Jen Fellman and Jacqueline Keeley by Stephen Mosher