Saying Baby Jane Dexter “gives a performance” misses the mark. She holds court. Equal parts Alberta Hunter and Janis Joplin yet one hundred percent herself, she pronounces each word of every lovingly chosen lyric with the full gavel imprint of her soul and sends it straight to us. There is always a conscious, considered choice, too–the right wrapping for her gift of self—whether to give us whiskey-tinged, ringing resonance when laying down the law on a refrain of “Do Right Woman”, or to deliver us a thundering low note, disappearing in smoke around a dark bend of Lance Horne’s “Orpheus” .
And as in her show title, it’s always, always personal. She doesn’t need to speak between numbers, nor does she through the first several songs. We are already in clear, emotional communication with this very grown up Baby Jane. Her long-time music director and piano accompanist Ross Anderson is in perfect synch, too, always ready with an arpeggio or a jaunty touch of syncopation in a seemingly effortless dance with the seated, beaming, artistically concentrating Miss Dexter.
Stylistically, whether she’s interpreting Cole Porter or Lennon and McCartney, Miss Dexter is simply not about lulling us with familiar melodies, familiarly rendered. I hardly realized I had heard songs I knew. Critics have been baffled trying to classify her, she tells us—blues, jazz, pop, something else–because she doesn’t choose her set with any particular genre in mind. You’ll hear Rodgers and Hart as well as House of the Rising Sun, so what is that? And you will neither register nor miss any standard style on a particular song anyway. It all comes out pure Baby Jane Dexter style. The song is there because the words bear her huge heart’s story.
We had heard the name Baby Jane Dexter around New York for years, imagining maybe a cutesy and coy novelty singer, not this gutsy woman. The rest of the packed audience seemed fully clued in and eager. This is someone they’ve come to see every December at the Metropolitan Room for years. She’s won every major cabaret award, including an amazing seven MAC (Manhattan Association of Clubs and Cabarets) Awards, culminating with a Lifetime Achievement Award this year.
The Metropolitan Room is a wonderful setting for the proceedings. It has its own time zone. “When” is cabaret, anyway? Maybe the early sixties? Mm, “Timeless” is more like it. Elegant, grown up. A dressy crowd, tinkling glasses, flickering candles. After the initial adjustment, it becomes a warm, intimate space that transports you “there”, as you sip your first cocktail, already glad you haven’t missed out on the special experience of a night like this.
Miss Dexter has clearly borne up under some physical challenges, in addition to romantic ones, and it shows in some missed pitches, some massive efforts to sustain notes at times, not always without fail. But she wins an extra star on the sheer strength of her embracing, life-affirming musical personality. So dress up a little—out of respect for her journey, and for the room that has witnessed so many great performances. Prepare to spend what you would on a night at an Off-Broadway theater and worry no more about that. You’ll leave feeling like you’ve just spent Christmas Eve with your oldest, closest friends.