BWW Review: Jennifer Barnhart Outdoes Herself with IT'S ABOUT TIME at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
Early in her show, IT'S ABOUT TIME Jennifer Barnhart discusses the fact that it took her a while to develop her first club act, and reveals the details of how this show came about. Truth be told, it doesn't matter when it happened or how it happened, all that matters is that it happened because Jennifer Barnhart is a natural, and if she isn't busy working on one of the many projects that always come her way, she may as well be entertaining people on a cabaret stage. This debut show is one of the slickest, best-prepared, most polished, well-constructed debuts a person could hope to find in a nightclub theater, and Ms. Barnhart appears to be born to do this. Naturally, that is not a surprise, as Jennifer Barnhart is a wonderful singing actor; but we don't always get to see her act because of the great demand for her puppeteering skills, skills that necessitate her face be either hidden or less visible than the puppet she is bringing to life. The puppets, lovely though they are, are not necessary for Jennifer Barnhart to get acting work. She is as good an actor, as good a singer, as a person need be to get jobs working on the musical theater stage. Indeed, it is appropriate that It's About Time begins with the rousing "It's Today" because Jennifer Barnhart could play Mame Dennis while sleepwalking. In fact, nothing could be easier than making a list of all the roles for which Ms. Barnhart is right, without the puppets, even though the puppets are wonderful and her skills as a puppeteer beyond compare. It's just that it would be nice to see Jennifer Barnhart out front a little more often.
Until that happens, though, there is always It's About Time.
It's About Time first debuted during the first half of the year to much acclaim - so much acclaim that there was a definite demand for an encore performance; and even though a few months had passed, it did not show on November 24th when she took to the stage. The show is in such good shape that one would never have known that Barnhart and co. had not performed for another audience the night before, if she hadn't actually said it had been a while. With a winning combination of utter confidence and bubbly joyfulness, Barnhart spends most of her time onstage smiling the biggest, brightest smile a person could keep on their face for an hour without cramping. Naturally, when moaning low on "Black Coffee" the smile is, appropriately, missing, but even when performing the lovely ballad "Crazy World" in honor of her Mother, that happy smile was ever-present, but then so was her Mom, beaming with pride and wiping away a tear or two - everyone should smile at a moment like that. Smiles abound during all 80 minutes of the show that features more amusing moments than dramatic ones, with numbers like "Ain't Misbehavin" and "Just In Time" adroitly arranged in a most successful attempt at telling stories about how she landed her jobs on the TV Show BETWEEN THE LIONS and a little play called AVENUE Q, as well as a smidgen of ukelele and a few special guests from the aforementioned shows. Barnhart's is a happy story. There are bumps here and there but, in the end, every chapter in her life story ends cheerfully, hence the lighthearted air to the show - and a happy Barnhart leads to a happy audience.
A REAL happy audience.
It's About Time feels more like an episode of a weekly show than a night of cabaret. Ms. Barnhart is so relaxed and comfortable talking to her audience, sharing her stories, bringing up her guest artists (four of them to be exact - one man and three puppets), and joshing around with the band that one might think she does this on an ongoing basis. It wouldn't be too far-fetched a thought to see Jennifer Barnhart as the host of a musical variety show, with her approachable air, comedic abilities, wide-ranging talents, and a sultry whiskey tenor that reaches occasional reedy high notes while singing show music, rock music, shanty jazz, and parody songs - talk about versatility. She's also a prime example of a strong, tenacious woman who is openly vulnerable and sweet, a conquering combination in a person and an entertainer if there ever was one. In her sparkly dress, playfully goofing with her wonderful band, bassist Mary Ann McSweeney, drummer Michael Croiter and pianist/musical director Gary Adler (all musicians from her Avenue Q days), Ms. Barnhart feels more like Cabaret's Cool Cat than a neophyte who took their first steps onto the nightclub stage mere months ago. It's impressive, coming out of the gate with so expertly produced (and directed by Alan Muraoka) an entertainment, especially when the highlights include a famous Broadway duet by The Bad News Bears (featuring her guest Jason Jacoby) and the sweetest Tim Minchin tune ever to be heard. Barnhart has broken through, and no mistake, in one of the most aptly named club acts around.
No, this is no ordinary happening for the cabaret world - not everyone gets to have a debut show this good, not everyone gets to start off their cabaret journey in New York with so big a bang, and not everyone gets to step, so blithely and lithely, into a new corridor of their career.
But then, not everyone is Jennifer Barnhart.
IT'S ABOUT TIME has completed its performances for the time being. When more dates are announced Broadwayworld will bring you the news.
Photos by Stephen Mosher