Whenever someone asks me to come up with a definition of "cabaret," I'm often at a loss. A cabaret performance can be many things and the music can some from many sources. As Emily West demonstrated this past weekend at the Gaslight Theatre, it can be a dimly lit evening of slash-your-wrists ballads delivered with smoky intensity by a powerful singer/songwriter who has combined her childhood country influences with an urban storyteller's sensibility, creating her own unique sound in the process.
Ms. West is hard to classify, both as a singer and songwriter. Either on her own or in collaboration with her music director Kevin Rhoads, Emily West the songwriter seems to favor stories of lost love and lost hope, often shot through with self-aware irony and the kind of surreal imagery that you find in the lyrics of (say) Tom Waits. Emily West the singer delivers those numbers with smoldering passion and a wide-ranging voice that, like the voices of so many country singers, always seems just on the verge of tears.
That performance approach worked best in the original numbers that made a little over half of her eighteen-song set Friday night, the essence of which was captured in the torch song trilogy that opened the show. "Fallin'," which West has described as "an old-school kind of song that dealt honestly about situations in life," is about a woman who has fallen in love and can't get up. "Monsters Under My Bed" suggests that love changes people in ways that are rarely good. And "Why Do Lovers Leave?" suggests that the answer to the question might lie, at least in part, in the narrator's anger and self-pity.
That might sound like the beginning of a long evening and, at around an hour and twenty minutes, it probably could have done with either a bit of trimming or a bit more variety. But Ms. West is a wonderfully charismatic singer with an ingratiating sense of self-aware humor. That takes the edge off an show that might otherwise be a bit hard to take.
Still, I wish she had shown us more of that droll humor that came out in (for example) "Games." Written in collaboration with Mr. Rhoads, it's a funny and very true he said/she said story about an intentional first and accidental second date that illustrates how men and women can be from different planets. Their whimsical "That's How the Boy Gets the Girl in the Movies" was a welcome change of pace, as was "Puppy Dog, "a clever gloss on Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog". "You ain't nothin' but a puppy dog," goes the refrain, "And I ain't nothin' but a home / You're just tired of bein' out in the rain / And you just want a place where you can bury your bone."
I also enjoyed her cover versions of well-known tunes like Roy Orbison's "You Got It" and the Moody Blues hit "Nights in White Satin." She gave both of them a kind of seething power that suggested a volcano just minutes from exploding.
Mr. Rhoads accompanied on piano and guitar and often sang backup vocals. His keyboard arrangements had a kind of clean, almost classical elegance that I found very appealing, and which made for a nice contrast with Ms. West soulful and emotionally searing vocals.
If you've gotten this far, you will have realized that I never actually gave a definition of "cabaret." My preference is for the one my friend and fellow cabaret artist Dr. Ken Haller ("As Seen on TV") came up with: cabaret is the art of telling stories in song. Emily West is, by that definition, a fully paid-up member of the Cabaret Club. Her appearance here as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival was a reminder of just how much variety lurks behind that seven-letter word.
The Gaslight Cabaret Festival runs through April 9th at the Gaslight Theater on North Boyle. For more information, check out the festival web site.
Join me at the Fourth Annual Award Ceremony of the St. Louis Theatre Circle at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 21, at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts at Chaminade. If you can't make it to the ceremony, you can watch HEC-TV's live stream of the event at www.hectv.org.