By Sarah Downs
Venerable cabaret performer Baby Jane Dexter, winner of numerous awards including a 2015 MAC Lifetime Achievement Award brings her signature contralto to the Metropolitan Room in her new show “Body and Soul. ”
In an evening of eclectic standards and cabaret originals Ms. Dexter explores a kind of blues territory a lot of people attempt but very few inhabit with Ms. Dexter’s authenticity and heart. With her throaty sound, she really knows how to sell a tune. You know that she is a woman who has lived, not a singer trying to manufacture a style. She sings in a ‘no holds barred’ manner. With a voice that reflects the wear and tear of a long career, with some missed pitches and a large vibrato, Ms. Dexter attacks and retreats, blazing her way through the blues and finding new depth in unexpected ballads. Her gutsy sound conjures up images of late nights in smokey joints, singing long past closing time.
Ms. Dexter approaches each song from a fresh perspective, telling a story with each one. Some pieces have been arranged in time signatures foreign to the original, with great (and atypical) success. So often, re-interpretations can come across as precious. Hers do not. Musical Director Ross Patterson, as arranger and pianist has steered clear of the danger of forcing a song into an idea rather than mining a song for the emotions it inspires. It is such a pleasure to hear someone re-interpret even well-known standards with a clear purpose that doesn’t abandon the integrity of the piece. His lush playing supports Ms. Dexter throughout, at times extending and continuing a musical line when her voice falters, even as her spirit does not. Their 25-year partnership stands on solid musical ground.
Effective in her quiet moments as well, Ms. Dexter keeps us on her wavelength. She takes her time with the music. “Body and Soul” becomes a dusky affirmation of need, “The Angels Sing” a compelling expression of discovery, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” a song of longing and regret, full of wistful dreams. It is in this kind of emotionally fraught territory that she is at her best.
Throughout this performance one feels Ms. Dexter’s life experience both on and offstage — her pain, her vulnerability, her heart. Having endured various career and personal reverses in past years, she is currently performing in a wheelchair. She nonetheless soldiers on, playing off her difficult entrance and exit with an engaging smile. Indeed ‘soldiering on’ could be her motto. As she counsels us from the stage — stick with love, face life head-on, and above all hang on. Tell adversity to stand back because she is not done here.
Baby Jane Dexter in “Body and Soul,” featuring Ross Patterson, at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd St., Nov. 26th and 27th; December 9th and 16th, 7:00 p.m. $25 music charge, two drink minimum. Reservations 212-206-0440 or www.metropolitanroom.com. Run time approximately 60 minutes. Baby Jane Dexter recordings available on http://www.cdbaby.com.