BWW Review: Joanne Halev's LIKE A PERFUMED WOMAN Has The Sweet Smell of Success at Birdland
The great Carol Hall once told me that her ambition, when creating a club act, was to put the audience at ease, to entertain them, and to send them home feeling that they knew her a little better. I never saw one of Carol's cabaret shows without witnessing exactly that to which she aspired.
Last June I caught a nightclub act at The Birdland Theater that fell right in line with Carol's description of what a good cabaret show should be. The performer was Joanne Halev and her show was titled Like a Perfumed Woman. As the evening's entertainment began, I assumed that Ms. Halev was one of the respected regulars of the cabaret community - after all, she was playing Birdland in a show directed by MAC award winner Lina Koutrakos, with Mr. Alex Rybeck behind the piano -- them's some pretty lofty credentials. So I was ready for polished up, snazzed up, jazzed up, fine time cabaret-ing at The Birdland Theater. That is precisely what I got -- except that, after the show I was told that THIS was her cabaret club debut. I looked at my friend and kind of shook my head like Scooby Doo and said "What?" to a bemused face that replied: "FIRST. TIME." Wow. I didn't see that coming. Well done, Rookie!
Joanne Halev is one elegant lady. When she hit the stage in her sophisticated beaded pantsuit and eye-stoppingly bead encrusted heels I thought she looked just like Auntie Mame should look. I hoped she would be as endearing as Auntie Mame, and as the evening wound up and she warmed up, I got my wish. It can be difficult to get a read on a performer whose work is unfamiliar to you, for about the first two or three numbers - that's their time to thrill you with their prowess and beauty ... then, when the real banter with the audience begins, they hit you with their personality. Ms. Halev didn't wait two or three songs in to let it all out because she began telling her story the moment she chose the title of her show. 'Like a perfumed woman' is the first sentence of one of my favorite songs, 'Joey, Joey, Joey', and the sentence is aptly applied to Joanne Halev because she has spent her life working in the perfume industry, as a creator of scents. Scent, she informed, indelibly affects the memory, which is why she quickly segue'd from 'Joey, Joey, Joey' into 'I Remember You', a seamless and eloquent transition that got her talking about life in the fragrant world of scent, a life rife with exotic experience, reaping rewards for the nightclub neophyte.
Halev taught us, that night, that in the offices of perfumers one regularly hears the question "Have you got skin?" because it is on the skin of colleagues that the creators of scents test new fragrances - a perfect chance for Halev to offer up a little "I've Got You Under My Skin". Deftly using musical props, Halev explained that perfumes, like music, are made up of many notes "One Note Samba" and that not all perfumers are French "C'est Si Bon" before informing us that in Japan too much perfume on your body is considered an invasion of personal space "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman". It was a classic Alex Rybeck arranged medley, deft and delicious, and it was clear that this is a musical match made in heaven - who else but Rybeck should play with a woman of such substance?
Throughout the evening Ms. Halev demonstrated a sleek musicality, not just with songs like 'Not Exactly Paris' and "All of You" (a sensual thrill with Ray Kilday on bass and Ari Axelrod on conga), but with the manner in which she speaks. I can actually still hear the honey- voice of the well-traveled lady who shared tales about alluring lands like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, using florid and poetic language that painted a picture ("Men and women put on five to seven layers of rich, sensual scent") worthy of the lyricists she performed during the hour-long show. Her gift with language, combined with her expressive and pleasing voice, provided little one-act plays with each new story and every song, some of them romantic, some sad, some sexy and some outright naughty. It was a smile-inducing night.
Particularly pleasurable for me were Ms. Halev's poignantly understated performance of John Bucchino's masterpiece 'Playbill' and the cleverly funny 'Much More Married', not to mention an arrangement of "Embraceable You/Autumn Leaves" that left a hushed audience holding their breath, awaiting the next whispered tone of eloquent emotion to emit from the sophisticated songbird's Piaf-like performance. It seems this perfumer is quite the actress, both with her voice and her face - which is just the kind of thing a good cabaret evening needs. We want storytellers. We want open hearts. We want to go on the journeys provided by your mini one-act plays, something that was clearly an open dialogue with Ms. Koutrakos and Mr. Rybeck because all of the pieces in "Like a Perfumed Woman" came together beautifully.
True to Carol Hall's definition, Joanne Halev sent her audience home knowing her better than when they came in. This was no mere nightclub act in which a singer picks their favorite Sondheim and Jason Robert Brown songs to sing, just because they like them: Joanne Halev used music and prose to tell us about her life, her work, her travels, her soul, and her family. We were elated to hear her impression of her grandmother, Lilian Frankenstein (who wore L'air du Temps, while her own mother favored Shalamar), who used to say "on account of because" and who called perfume "Terlet water". We were moved by the story of how she met her husband of 36 years (in the audience that night!) "across a crowded room" at a Passover Dinner, and we were given a glimpse at her grace and gratitude "I'm so blessed - I've seen, experienced and smelled so much". I went home entirely enchanted by this chanteuse who ended her show, appropriately, with 'Unforgettable' and 'C'est magnifique' - because Joanne Halev is both Unforgettable and Magnificent.
Joanne Halev's Like A Perfumed Woman will have an encore performance at Birdland on October 17 at 7 pm. For details and tickets visit the Birdland Website