Lena Hall at Cafe Carlyle; Photo by Michael Wilhoite

Lena Hall at Cafe Carlyle; Photo by Michael Wilhoite

By Tulis McCall

Fresh from her final Tony Winning performance as Yitzhak in Hedwig and The Angry Inch Lena Hall made her debut at the Café Carlyle Tuesday night. What made her such a hit in Hedwig… (she worked with four different Hedwigs) is on vibrant display in her show, Sin and Salvation.

Hall has taken a fresh approach and done away with what we expect at the Carlyle, namely a lot of standards, and her mighty stage presence made a huge impression – perhaps a little too huge.

Her set begins with a heart pounding “Three Women” by Jack White and Blind Willie McTell. Her delivery is raw and her aim is true. Her chosen delivery style if often reminiscent of Janis Joplin. “You’re getting all the songs that I want to sing,” she tells us, “songs that inspire and touch me.” It Ain’t Easy by Ron Davies (covered by David Bowie on Ziggy Stardust)is a sort of revival-rock that Hall swings. God is her homage to Tori Amos. Psycho Killer (David Byrne, Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth) slows down the proceedings to a slow simmer.

Hall switches is up with a beautiful ballad Save Me (Brian May) followed by a soulful Lake Of Fire (Curt Kirkwood), and and Erica Badu number Otherside of the Game. Her arrangement of It’s A man’s World (James Brown and Betty Jean Newsome) is no surprise as you can see it coming for a mile off. Steve Winwood’s Can’t Find My Way Back Home is a welcome addition to the set. Take Me To The Church (Andrew Hozier-Byrne) is a tricky number vocally, and Hall makes it look easy.

About halfway through the evening I realized that none of these songs were familiar to me. This, in and of itself doesn’t mean much, but I also realized that everything was beginning to sound the same. The songs, albeit well executed, were beginning to blend.   Hall’s larger than life stage presence was steamrolling along and the music and the stories were being lost, as was my interest.

Hall is presenting more of a rock concert than a cabaret act. The volume in the room is over the top and unless you are looking directly at Hall, the lyrics are often a mystery. Which is pretty much the way it is at rock concerts.  The night is filled with a lot of embellishments and throaty vocalizing that seem self referential rather than integral. In addition, I wonder if she will be able to keep this up for the entire run.

Her fans were represented in every corner of the room. The woman I sat next to at the bar had seen Hedwig 16 times, largely due to Hall’s performance. Hall is indeed a mighty talent, but her choice of material for this show is one note. People sing the standards for a reason. We know know them. And as Molly Ringwald proved, you can do a lot with an arrangement when you put your mind to it. An evening filled with numbers that are eclectic has it merits, but one or two standards would ground the evening and give Hall the chance to let her range shine..

Lena Hall makes her Cafe Carlyle debut to open the spring season, April 7-18. The two-week engagement titled Sin and Salvation will feature an eclectic mix of soulful rock, pop & blues. At The Carlyle, Lena Hall will be joined by her musical director and guitarist Watt White, keyboardist John Deley, bassist Lee Nadel and drummer Brian Fishler.

Performances will take place Tuesday – Saturday at 8:45pm. Reservations made by phone at 212.744.1600 are $75 ($125 for premium seating, $55 for bar seating) Tuesday- Thursday; and $85 ($135 for premium seating, $65 for bar seating) on Friday and Saturday. Reservations made online at www.ticketweb.com are $80 ($135 for premium seating) Tuesday – Thursday; and $95 ($145 for premium seating) on Friday and Saturday. Cafe Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue).