By David Finkle
November 12-18, 2004
Barbara Brussell’s evolution is something to track. When she arrived in Manhattan from California a decade or more ago, she’d already accumulated an impressive set of credentials as a musical-comedy performer. Talented as actress and singer, nubile and apple-cheeked, she looked a safe bet for a boile future. Within a shorter time than many others have managed, she was in the Oak Room at the Algonquin, where she instantly looked as if she belonged. The usual awards, including a 1997 Bistro nod from this publication, collected around her.
Some career trajectories aren’t as predictable as others, however, and Brussell’s hasn’t been. For reasons about which I won’t speculate, the Carmel thrush’s path has taken a curious but commendable turn. She no longer sticks to the kind of formula that keeps a performer reliably on, for instance, the Oak Room radar. Instead, she’s going in another, trickier direction: presenting herself – or someone convincingly like herself – on full display as a woman with insecurities.
There’s nothing new, needless to say, about autobiographical acts. They’re often advised as the smart ticket for succeeding in intimate venues. But what Brussell does these days is not your mother’s autobiographical act. It’s not the standard set of facts about birthplace, showbiz path, blah, blah, blah. Brussell is doing something few others do or have done: psychological autobiography. She isn’t counting on patrons to like everything they see and hear, just to understand it’s 100% authentic. (Maybe only irascible Nina Simone ever did anything similar when, in her concerts, she refused to mask her churning moods. Janis Joplin’s singing also seemed to issue directly from the darkest recesses of her turbulent psyche.)
Take Brussell’s breathtaking interpretation during the recent Cabaret Convention of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” This was no expression of joyful ardor; it was a confession of how disorienting love can be from someone who appeared to know more about it than she cared to. The rendition came as no surprise to anyone who’d seen last year’s Danny’s Skylight Room visit, “The Piano Bench of My Mind: Songs I’ve Been Sitting On for Far Too Long.” For the acclaimed stint, Brussell sang material that clearly and deliberately reflected a woman’s conflicted state of mind. She might just as easily have called the show “Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”
This year, in “Almost Like Being in Love: The Lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner” at Danny’s Skylight Room, Brussell would seem to have backed off that shaky cabaret limb to do another of her songwriter tributes. The program is that, of course, and a deserving one for a wordsmith who – in this Sondheim age – has been shamefully overlooked. But the often-married Lerner was writing his lyrics from a shadowy place with which Brussell obviously also relates. Once again, Brussell, gesticulating agitatedly, brings a fragile intensity to many of the intricately etched inclusions. There are no conventional readings here. “What will she do next?” the audience comes to wonder. She doesn’t disappoint with a medley like “You’re All the World to Me” and “Too Late Now” (both with music by Burton lane). And forget about “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” (also Lane’s melody). Or don’t forget about – see if you can even try.
With first Blossom Dearie and now Maude Maggart, Phillip Officer, and Brussell, the Danny’s Skylight Room folks are establishing a once-or-twice-a-week long-run policy that’s turning out to be extremely
valuable. It gives some of the city’s most outstanding if exploratory performers a place to show their bold, chancy wares. Brussell is benefiting from the approach, and the feeling is mutual. Big thanks to all concerned.