Like the lyrics of several of her songs, the title of the show Susan Werner brought to The Cabaret at Savor this April 23rd through 26th  - I Can't be New - is richly ironic. In fact, nearly everything she did was new, or at least novel - to say nothing of creative, smart, hip, devilishly clever and just downright entertaining. Howard Reich, chief critic of the Chicago Tribune, nailed it back in 2006 when called her “one of the most innovative songwriters working today.”
Due to accidents of history as much as anything else, the image of the singer/songwriter in the popular mind is strongly linked to artists who draw their inspiration primarily from the folk/old-time tradition. Think of July Collins or Phil Ochs in the 1960s or Nanci Griffith today. As anyone who has heard Spencer Day or Jessica Molaskey can attest, however, this image is far too limited. Werner started out making a name for herself on the folk circuit, and her songs certainly include elements of what's now called “traditional” music, but that's only one color in a palette that includes jazz - traditional and modern - torch songs, American Songbook standards and even some remnants of her classical conservatory training. I could have sworn I heard some very Brahmsian harmonies in her piano arrangements at one point.
Let's not beat around the bush here: Susan Werner writes really great songs. She writes the kind of songs that make people like me want to go out and buy copies of the sheet music so we can learn them. She writes songs that can be funny, sad, wry, world-weary, romantic, cynical, cheerfully upbeat and politically subversive - sometimes all at once.
She writes songs about religious stupidity (“Heaven So Small”), spiritual generosity (“Help Somebody”), love missed (“Don't I Know You”, a Billy Strayhorn homage), love found (“Philanthropy”) and her home town (“Give Me Chicago Any Day”).
She can even write a song - inspired by Alan Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams - about the difference in the way time moves at the earth's core vs. at the top of a mountain. It sounds a bit like one of those delicious pastiches William Walton wrote for Façade, which ain't shabby.
Besides, anyone who can compose a number like “Let's Regret This in Advance” that rhymes “Holy Bible” with “wholly liable” and then combine it with an arrangement that includes both a plucked jazz cello (one of bassist Greg Holt's many fine contributions to the evening) and a spot-on Louis Armstrong impersonation is aces in my book.
That brings us to the subject of Susan Werner the cabaret performer. Towards the end of the evening, Ms. Warner joked that she was breaking so many Cabaret Rules that Savor might lose its license. In reality, she did everything a good cabaret performer should do. She took us on a musical journey and told us stories that were worth hearing. She enjoyed herself immensely and included all of us in the fun.
I can't emphasize that last point enough. From her first moments on stage, in which her cheerfully spontaneous scatting segued into “Baby, You're That Unread Book” (or words to that effect), it was obvious that Ms. Werner took a joy in performance that was positively infectious. Bassist Holt certainly caught the fever early on, cheerfully trading hot licks with her and generally acting like someone for whom this was not just another gig. Indeed, if there was anyone in the Flim Flam Room that night who wasn't completely caught up in the celebration, that person escaped my notice. The audience responded warmly and enthusiastically, even when the material got openly political. Good on Ms. Werner for including that and good on us for welcoming it.
To find out whether Susan Werner will be bringing her one-woman musical carnival to your town, check out her web site, susanwerner.com. You can also buy her CDs and (as my fellow singing actors will be happy to learn) two of her songbooks there. Ms. Werner is an artist whose work deserves to show up in programs other than her own.