BWW Review: TESS JONAS ANYTHING BUT QUIET Illuminates at 54 Below
Repeatedly throughout my week, I look at the calendars of every cabaret nightclub in New York to see what shows I would like to cover. For a month, every time I was on the website for 54 Below, I clicked on the show Tess Jonas: THE (LIT)ERARY WOMEN OF MUSICAL THEATRE ANYTHING BUT QUIET. I looked at the complicated and verbose title and the artwork that told me nothing about either the show or the artist performing and decided against attending. Every single time I was on the club website I did this because, somewhere inside of me, I wanted to see the show, based solely on the description, which included the sentence "an evening of feminist literary history with plenty of heartfelt mix-belting and some fierce guest appearances". A literature geek who was raised by a strong mother who insisted he respect and support women, the theme of the show appealed to me, even if the advertising and title did not, so after three weeks of staring at the show page over and over, I reserved my press seats for the act I took to calling, simply, The Tess Jonas Show, and here is the lesson I learned:
Always trust your instincts.
Anything But Quiet is literally what creating cabaret is all about.
Ms. Jonas was an English major in college, with a passion for both singing and for feminism, and after an agency insulted her by remarking that she only plays characters who are "just too generic", she responded by creating an artful reply - and that reply is one that needs to be heard, because a cabaret show in which an artist sings their favorite show tunes is lovely, but a cabaret show in which an activist teaches their audience while singing their favorite show tunes that fit into a theme, is illuminating; and isn't that what artists do best?
The room at 54 Below was shockingly full for a 9:30 performance on the Sunday before Labor Day, and Tess Jonas gave that crowd a good reason to be out late the day before having to rise early to travel to Jones Beach, or the grandkids' house, or a Labor Day Sale on the last big holiday of summer: she gave them a night of perfectly planned, executed and pleasing entertainment.
Anything But Quiet features music from Broadway musicals Jane Eyre, Little Women, Fun Home, and The Color Purple, which is enough to get butts in seats, but when you add Ms. Jonas' intellectual and entertaining rhetoric about these literary heroines and the effect they have had on her, either within the covers of a book or on the musical theater stage, you get a personalized look at the value that literature still holds in a society that seems to be losing its' ability to read for longer than 280 characters. Jonas makes it clear that her feminism is as important to her as anything in her life, and that the foundation for that feminism is deeply rooted in the books she has read during that life, leading her to this special interest in strong female theatrical characters, frankly, an interest every actress should have, and the well-written script to Anything But Quiet sits very well in Jonas' good-natured personality. Combining her discussion of authors, books, and characters with the stories of her life, Jonas appeared professor-like, but not like a Learning Annex teacher so much as a really funny motivational speaker, and she was incredibly moving, both with her conversation and her crooning.
Tess Jonas has a very listenable voice. It is pleasant and pretty, well trained and passionate - she has great breath control and impressive precision with lyrics (some of the librettos attempted last night are excessive in their intricacies and Ms. Jonas missed not one word, indeed, not one note of a single song). When engaged in the act of singing, Tess Jonas comes to life, lighting up inside of the musical storytelling by moving deftly between light soprano fare with "Live Out Loud" from The Little Princes to a big belt during "The Wizard and I" from Wicked, to say nothing of a most beautiful and melodic country twang on a medley from Violet. With a special gift for writing, Ms. Jonas treated the audience to something really unique by recrafting the famous "Nanny Named Fran" theme song from The Nanny to recount the story of Jane Eyre, and then presented a new "Notice Me, Horton" from Seussical, in which Gertrude ("Gertrude McFuzz needs to up her game!") wanted more than for Horton to just notice her -- this Gertrude wanted him to "Vote for me, Horton!" - and the audience was with Jonas the whole way as she took Dr. Seuss and made him into an advocate for strong, female political candidates. Making use of her lyric writing again, Tess Jonas flipped the narrative in the song "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast to give the titular character a bigger dream "What if the books she is carrying are L-Sat Test Books?" -- and when she performed the song, she did all of the townspeople's voices (with a little help from crackerjack musical director Joshua Knight), proving that there is a place for her in the voiceover community. It is very clear that the talented Ms. Jonas is a Renaissance woman, ready to take on the world, and don't think she can't do it.
No evening of feminist conversation would be complete without a show of sisterly solidarity, and Jonas delightfully demonstrated her love of her fellow woman by inviting four terribly talented singing actresses to join her on the stage. A winsome Caitlin Mesiano was really enjoyable in a mash-up of "As Long As He Needs Me" from Oliver and "Someone Like You" from Jekyll and Hyde (a great concept and theme, quite well produced), an irrepressible Sarah Pothier took part in a flawless "Neverland" from Peter Pan (which would be out of place here, were the role not always played by women), and then all three women were joined by Allie Wing and Liz Erardi for a thrilling finale that defies description but that featured well-loved Broadway songs, to-die-for harmonies and infectious emotions that left the audience cheering. It was an elegant and eloquent night of theater with important themes and impressive performances.
Do I like the title of Ms. Jonas' show? No, I don't. I think it is obtuse and I wish she would change it. I also wish she would get show art that will tell a stranger scrolling through internet cabaret advertising that they have to see this show, that not seeing it would be something they would regret, for I would have regretted missing it. Then I wish she would book this show for a longer run because she has created something authentic and special, something audiences will appreciate and approve of - especially women who need to be reminded that no agent, no high school teacher, no man is to be allowed to put them in a box or hold them down. The women of this world, whether they are the ones on stage singing, or the ones in the audience learning through listening, are Astonishing, they are here to Live Out Loud and it is time for them to say I'm Here - and Tess Jonas has arrived to light the way.
Tess Jonas and Caitlin Mesiano
Tess Jonas and Sarah Pothier
Allie Wing, Liz Erardi, Tess Jonas, Sarah Pothier, Caitlin Mesiano
Photos by Stephen Mosher