BWW Reviews: JENNIFER SHEEHAN is 'Stardust' but Not Quite Golden in New Show at 54 Below
Evoking Rita Hayworth, a spot lit Jennifer Sheehan weaves through 54 Below towards the stage, long dark hair cascading above a body-skimming white gown replete with twinkling sequins. "I'll build a stairway to the stars . . .," (Mitchell Parish/Matt Malneck/Frank Signorelli) she sings with stunning vocal clarity and investment that might conjure Ziegfeld Girls.
In her new show, Stardust: A Night in the Cosmos, Sheehan welcomes the "dreamers, romantics, stargazers, astrophysicists, and Trekkies" with "songs that flicker like the street lamps of eternity" with lyrics featuring stars, moons, and rose-colored hope. It's an appealing theme and one that suits the artist's fetching performance and transition from ingénue into a more mature cabaret entertainer.
The next surprising number is a completely original treatment of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" which marries jazz and classical. (Old French Melody/Jane Taylor, lyrics) Sheehan's creamy voice elongates notes as if line drawing constellations. Suddenly, we're aware of superb guitarist Steven Bargonetti whose stylistic range and honed finesse contributes vastly to the show. Science notes about a star becoming, at its core, an actual diamond, are unromantic.
A sumptuously arranged "If the Stars Were Mine" (Melody Gardot) follows as bossa nova. Sheehan insinuates herself across the stage offering, for the first time in my recollection, soft-edged, fluent scat. There's a bit of sigh in every phrase. "So Many Stars" (Sergio Mendes/Marilyn & Alan Bergman) follows suit, featuring Jered Egan's eloquent bowed bass and Bargonetti's guitar. The vocalist shows hypnotic control, bending notes, extending and withdrawing emphasis, adding a tail of ssss. A Longfellow poem provides a transition into the next number.
Lights dim. "Caravan" (Irving Mills/Juan Tizol) begins in dark, lower register to the strains of bowed bass, shimmering cymbal and suggestive guitar. Egan adds textural vocal backup (here and elsewhere)--he sings well. Sheehan moves her hips, circles a shoulder, and breaks into a sensuous, Little Egypt dance. (There's a second career here, should she care to switch). Though appropriate to this song, the dance returns during David Bowie's "Space Oddity" ("Ground control to Major Tom . . . ") where it couldn't be more out of place. That selection includes a lush, layered arrangement, Egan's great count down and back-up, Bargonetti's spacey guitar riffs, and a turning disco ball. It's infectious.
"A Little Girl, A Little Boy, A Little Moon" (Robert King, Harry Warren) is enchanting: " . . . A little 'No', a little 'Yes', a little kiss/And very soon, a little church, a wedding tune/A little girl, a little boy, a little moon . . . " Sheehan gives the performance the light, fresh feel of a 1920s courting song. For a while we see the Midwestern girl again. On piano, her artful Musical Director James Followell creates a frothy waltz. Of the same stripe, though perhaps off theme, is the charming "Hang On Little Tomato" (Thomas M. Lauderdale/China Forbes/Patrick Abby of Pink Martini), which arrives with a winking, mid-lyric trill and natural tenderness.
Rupert Holmes "Moonfall" is difficult, classical in its demands with idiosyncratic octave changes. Hands at her sides, Sheehan has the vocal well in hand. Later, there's the unfortunate inclusion of a tuneless, meandering rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Moon at My Window," and "Henya" (Ambrose Akinmusire/Gretchen Parlato), both of which sound like somber, tone poems and suck the air out of the room.
At this point in an imaginative show bridged by literary selections (I'm ignoring the self-acknowledged ba-dump-dump jokes which can successfully be jettisoned), something goes wrong. With few exceptions, we now hear garden variety arrangements. Were these concocted by the same James Followell who earlier gave us redolent creativity? Though ably sung, they also exhibit no vocal personality. Increasingly lengthy monologue turns to fact-packed science and pop space culture instead of literature, damaging a well set mood.
Aria da capo: Sheehan's encore of "Stardust" (Mitchell Parish/Hoagy Carmichael) is bookended by glorious acapella. Few singers do this well, though many try. The artist's vocal is unhurried, with buttery modulation and commanding purity. Subtle vibrato appears like the train of a gown. Followell's piano tiptoes beside her joined by brushes, bass, and guitar embellishment. Music swells. We're at an army canteen in the 1940s. The melody of "Stairway to the Stars" closes with a flourish.
Jennifer Sheehan is a lovely young woman who has the capacity to imbue a performance with great warmth. She relates to her audience, moves with grace, and has a beautiful voice. This is the second show in a row, however, that calls out for a Director both to curb mannerisms which lead her away from authenticity and to help select/edit patter. As it stands the talented artist here offers two thirds of a really good show. Musicianship (including Dan Gross on drums) is excellent all around.
Jennifer Sheehan in Stardust: A Night in the Cosmos will again appear at 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on May 9 & 20 at 9:30 pm. For reservations, go to www.54Below.com
Sheehan performance photo courtesy of Stephen Sorokoff