Thursday, December 02, 2010

The art of rock and roll

Who: Barb Jungr and Simon Wallace
What: The Men I Love: the New American Songbook
Where: Cabaret St. Louis at the Kranzberg Center
When: December 1 through 4, 2010

In cabaret's house (to paraphrase John 14:2) are many mansions. If the show British singer Barb Jungr and her gifted pianist and music director Simon Wallace chose for their first St. Louis appearance is any indication, one of those mansions bears a strong resemblance to Graceland. Ms. Jungr brings a classic rocker sensibility to the art of cabaret, complete with grand gestures, heart-on-the sleeve sentiment, and a sense of humor as earthy as it is genuine.

A multitalented performer and songwriter with a raft of CDs to her credit (including Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone tributes), Ms. Jungr's approach to cabaret is miles away from that of more traditional artists. It is, however, no less appealing for all that. If her presence on the stage was an indication that Cabaret St. Louis is wiling to venture outside of the tried and true, that can only be a good thing in my book.

Speaking of books, Ms. Jungr's new American songbook picks up, chronologically, about where the Great American Songbook leaves off: in the 1960s. It includes hit makers like Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Diamond, as well as lesser lights such as Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. The subject matter ranges from mournful country ballads like Hank Williams's "Lost on the River" to "Lust for Life", Iggy Pop's raunchy celebration of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. And it was all arranged and performed in a way that was often unexpected and even revelatory.

Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere", for example, was given a bluesy boogie treatment. Rundgren's pop hit "The Light in Your Eyes" was turned into a ballad—as was Diamond's Monkees monster "I'm a Believer", with a bit of soul tossed into the mix for good measure. Ms. Jungr even managed to make the David Byrne/Brian Eno hit "Once in a Lifetime" sound like it was actually about something other than clever wordplay which, in my view, is more than Talking Heads ever did.

With its pop trappings removed and tempo slowed down, Paul Simon's "My Little Town" was revealed as a bleak little memento mori. Ditto Bruce Springsteen's "The River", particularly in Ms. Jungr's painfully and appropriately direct performance. Fortunately for everyone's mental health, she followed that up with an engaging sing-along version of the Andy Williams hit "Can't Get Used to Losing You" and a raucous rendition of another Neal Diamond classic, "Red Red Wine".

Throughout the evening, Mr. Wallace was a sympathetic and smart presence at the piano. A composer in his own right with many film and TV scores to his credit (to say nothing of over 350 songs written with St. Louis's own Fran Landesman), Mr. Wallace was not so much Ms. Jungr's accompanist as her partner. A good music director is always a collaborator, of course, but the collaboration is not always as apparent as it was here.

All that being said, I did have a few reservations about the show. The evening was a bit ballad heavy, for one thing – not surprising, given Ms. Jungr's admission early on that she's known as someone who sings sad songs slowly. Her genuinely funny patter acted as a mitigating factor, though, so there was no danger that we would weep into our wine. Her big rock star stage presence also took a bit of getting used to, as did the fact that she often needed to consult her notes. Still, when all was said and done, she made it work - and that's really the bottom line.

For information on upcoming cabaret shows at the Kranzberg Center, visit the Cabaret St. Louis site at and the Presenters Dolan site at To find out where Ms. Jungr's travels will take her next, visit

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