Within the first minute of Jennifer Simard’s new solo show at 54 Below, she was singing Dreamgirls, sliding down a banister, and clutching a patron’s head to her bosom. Fear not: Simard’s madcap sense of humor was run amok and we were chasing after her, trying to catch up. Simard is known for being one of the funniest actors on Broadway, but she often, in her words, plays second banana to the leading lady. The central premise of this new cabaret outing, Can I Get Your Number?, is that Simard is now stepping into the spotlight, getting the numbers she never got to sing. As hilarious as she is–and she is–the revelation of the night is that Jennifer Simard is an incredible singer and capable of an extraordinary depth of feeling.
Simard has worked with almost everyone and, as you can expect, that means almost every vocal type. At one point, she adopted a mocking voice and asked about herself, “Is she a soprano or a belter?! I’m so confused!” It’s a valid point! Simard displayed a range of not only high notes and low, but vast variation in style and color, too. She opened her voice up to us in a way she’s always been open comedically. She established herself as someone who’s more than just a comedian. She’s a consummate performer.
To some degree, we always knew that. You can’t do what Jennifer Simard does on stage without being an exceptional actor. It’s a common thought that comedy is harder to play than drama and, if you subscribe to that, Simard is up there with the all-time greats. Coupling that with the vocals she displayed, we may have been sleeping on her potential this entire time.
Simard paid tribute to some of the leading ladies she’s worked with by taking on their songs. She began with Sutton Foster, her co-star in Shrek, performing a cut song called “More to the Story.” To highlight the disparity in their roles, Simard enlisted an audience volunteer to play her part while she played Foster’s. In the show, as Foster sang the song Simard crouched on the ground, fixing her hem…for three minutes and 24 seconds. Who says show business is all glamor?
She then paid tribute to her all-time favorite Broadway actress: Bernadette Peters. She’d even curled her hair into the signature Petersian coils. With Stephen Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby”, Simard managed to slip into some of Bernadette’s affectations, but she never let it devolve into impersonation territory. Of all the songs in Peters’ songbook that she could have chosen after that, she went for one of the hardest: “Unexpected Song” from Song & Dance. She asked us to say a prayer for her to get through it and, wow, did she ever. Simard navigated the many shifts in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melody like she wrote it for herself.
Some other highlights included moving renditions of Jacques Brel’s “Sons of” in honor of Donna Murphy and her late husband Shawn Elliott and The Beatles’ “Yesterday” in honor of Rebecca Luker. Simard sang “Sons of” as a child and even performed it at an inn in France, bringing the proprietor to tears. Years later, she is still able to bring out the immense power of Brel’s song to remember her friend’s husband. Her performance of “Yesterday” stripped everything down to a simple, plaintive remembrance of a day gone by. In this context, it was a day when Luker was still with us, laughing with Simard. “I’ve always been a sad clown,” she said. People use humor for a lot of reasons and listening to Simard sing these songs, it’s clear that there’s a whole lot of life and experience behind all the faces and voices.
I’m barely touching on the breadth of Simard’s set list, which also includes tributes to Betty Buckley, Bette Midler, Madeline Kahn, Patti LuPone, Kerry Butler, and Faith Prince–among even more. We love Jennifer Simard for that infectious energy, that irresistible draw that tickles the funny bone until you’re fully obsessed with her. But this concert made me wonder what she’s capable of if she can harvest that irrepressible charisma into a role that could take us deeper and show us something else, a part of her we haven’t seen before. I got just a glimpse and was eager to see more.