BWW Reviews: Signature Theatre's CAROLYN COLE: THE FAREWELL TOUR – Anything But Your Typical Cabaret!

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Audiences were forewarned when Carolyn Cole stepped onto the stage and announced that her Farewell Tour was, "Not yo momma's cabaret" and that it was going to be a unique evening. Aside from the brief tease of Gypsy's "Let Me Entertain You," Cole's performance was an unexpected departure from the musical standards one might except from a Signature Theatre production and a passionate tribute to the rock standards which greatly influenced her life.

Performing hits by Gnarls Barkley, Gladys Knights & The Pips, Queen, Delta Rae, Led Zepplin and original work by the show's director Matt Connor, it was less a cabaret show and more a traditional rock show. Surprised theatergoers didn't hesitate to get into the groove and Signature's cozy Ark Theatre made it seem like Cole was performing amongst friends. Clad in punk rock attire consisting of graphic leggings, a leather vest, piled up jewelry and a rocker chic hairstyle, Cole gave an ambitious performance.

Unlike a traditional cabaret show, The Farewell Tour featured very little dialogue with the audience and lacked the storytelling which usually accompanies a song. Instead, Cole choose to give a brief introduction of herself and began performing immediately. That's fine for a rock show, but for those unfamiliar with Cole, the direct nature and quick pace of the show may have been a bit off-putting at first. We're curious: what makes a musical theater artist, especially one who's had success recently with Signature's productions of Hairspray and Hello, Dolly!, change performance styles and more generally, who is Carolyn Cole?

In choosing to perform rock hits, Cole ranged from the classics with "Somebody To Love" to more modern hits such as "Crazy." Each energetic rendition seemed designed to show off her vocal prowess, as if to say to the Signature audience, "I'm more than Tracy Turnblad!" Unfortunately, she wasn't as successful in making these songs her own, and that was a major problem with The Farewell Tour. If you're going to perform well known rock staples, then your performance has to make the audience forget who originally made them hits. Cole gave it her all, but none of her renditions were very groundbreaking. Enjoyable? Yes! Memorable? Not particularly.

Where Cole soared was in performing the songs of Matt Conner. She seemed more at ease with these songs and relished the opportunity to perform original works. Her encore performance of "Dianne's Song" was easily the highlight of the evening. Despite having just learned the song and having to use a lyric sheet, her emotionally honest interpretation of this sobering ballad made it unforgettable.

Cole was supported by a four piece band featuring Chris Chlumsky on bass, Chris DeChiara on drums, Jacob Kidder on piano and Steven Walker on guitar, and featuring Maria Egler and Christopher Mueller providing back-up vocals. The band really shined with their backup accompaniment of Delta Rae's "Bottom of the River." DeChiara use of chains on a trashcan provided a soulful quality to Cole's rendition. One look around the Ark Theatre and it was easy to see toes tapping and heads bobbing to the rhythm.

The show's title, The Farewell Tour, is sort of a misnomer and tongue-in-cheek joke. Even Cole joked to say that she meant 'Farewell Tour' in the Cher-style - meaning that she'd keep coming back to Signature for the next twenty years. All performances of The Farewell Tour are being recorded for a live album adding to the show's energy. Cole's performance is fearless and it will be interesting to watch her career moving forward. With the right material she truly has the chance to shine. DC audiences already know it, and she reaffirmed that last night!

Run time is 60 minutes with no intermission. Carolyn Cole: The Farewell Tour plays thru February 22nd at Signature Theater 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.

Graphic: Carolyn Cole. Photo courtesy of Signature Theatre.

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From This Author Benjamin Tomchik