Sunday, April 15, 2012

Southern exposure

Jeffrey M. Wright: Southern Roots
The Presenters Dolan at The Kranzberg Center, St. Louis
April 13 and 14, 2012

[Full disclosure: I have worked on stage with Jeffrey M. Wright, Carol Schmitt, and Tim Schall in the past.]

Call it nostalgia or simple habituation, but the fact is most of us have strong emotional attachment to the music with which we grew up. It’s no surprise, then, that those of us who are cabaret performers often return to the soundtrack of our childhood when we think of material for a show.

St. Louis actor and singer Jeffrey M. Wright’s Arkansas childhood was filled with the sounds of Nashville country and crossover music, as well as Southern rock. His Southern Roots show was a celebration of that heritage, with songs ranging from mainstream hits like “Wichita Lineman” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” to country rock classics like Elvis Presley’s 1969 hit “Rubbernecking” and newer songs like Sara Evans’s “Suds in the Bucket” from 2004. It was a tremendously enjoyable evening of material not often heard in a cabaret context and a reminder, once again, that the cabaret tent is large enough to encompass a range of music styles that goes well beyond the Great American Songbook.

Mr. Wright is a very engaging and polished performer with a fine light baritone voice. He was at his best in songs like “Southern State of Mind” and “I’m Still a Guy” where he could bring the full force of his charm to bear, but that didn’t stop him from capturing the rueful subtext of Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When” or finding a somewhat surprising angry edge to a countrified voice and guitar arrangement of “One For My Baby”. Overall I’d say the choice of material in Southern Roots gave Mr. Wright a chance to expand his dramatic range that he probably doesn’t get that often in his theatrical work. Which is, of course, one of the reasons some actors enjoy cabaret so much in the first place.

Carol Schmitt’s inventive arrangements, stylish piano work, and backup vocals demonstrated once again why she has become such a popular music director for local singers. Guitarist Steve Schenkel added just the right amount of country seasoning to the mix, along with some impressive solo breaks. And director Tim Schall’s hand could be seen in the show’s pacing and dramatic shape.

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