Rachel Bay Jones has thrown out the setlist. Returning to Feinstein’s/54 Below after years of delay, Jones and music director Randy Redd have scrapped their pre-pandemic material and fashioned a brand new cabaret show with a relaxed, “just jammin’” feel. Or, as Jones describes it, the vibe is “magical mushrooms.”
She’s never been your typical Broadway actress. Her 2009 debut album features showtunes, but in folk-inflected arrangements. The new show at 54 Below is more singer-songwriter focused and lets Jones show colors of her voice that the musical theatre repertoire doesn’t necessarily highlight.
You can’t have “magical mushrooms” without a little Simon & Garfunkel. Jones opens with “Song for the Asking,” a simple offering, performed with spare accompaniment that sets the tone for what’s to come. Her introductory announcement mentions her Tony, Emmy, and Grammy awards, but when she steps to the mic wearing a jean jacket and glasses, she’s just a woman with a song, not someone toting a shelf of awards. Later, she brings out a powerful version of Simon’s “American Tune” and highlights some lyrics that feel particularly apt in our post/ongoing-pandemic age: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered / I don’t have a friend who feels at ease / I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered / Or driven to its knees.”
This show is not about huge, belted notes or blowing any roofs off underground supper clubs. Jones chooses a series of songs that suit her voice and sensibility perfectly. Redd joins Jones for the gentle bossa nova “Somethin’ Stupid”, popularized by Frank and Nancy Sinatra, and the undulations of the melody let the low richness of their voices shine. Jones exhibits her skill as both a vocalist and a comedian when she tears into the Irving Berlin standard “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” a song about hell as a resort town.
Jennifer Laura Thompson also sings a couple tunes with Jones. “Dog Dreams”, a hilarious song by The Story about two dogs who steal a car to run wild all over town, showcased their incomparable blend, first on display in the opening number of Dear Evan Hansen. The second song, “Get Out the Map” by the Indigo Girls, is a clear reference to that opening number, “Anybody Have a Map”. The pair have wonderful chemistry and should continue to sing together at any opportunity. Their tight harmonies on “Dog Dreams” recall Simon & Garfunkel’s tandem voices.
Jones’ daughter, Miranda, a beautiful singer in her own right, takes the lead on a cover of Harry Styles’ “Boyfriends” with her mom singing backup. It’s a sweet moment, especially since Jones reads the lyrics off her phone and, when I attended, had to have Miranda help her make it bigger. The sweet mother-daughter moment made the evening feel even more personal, more like we were all just hanging out.
That casual feel extends to the end of the show. After a blistering rendition of the Stephen Sondheim song, “No More”, in an arrangement from her album, Jones says, “We don’t have an encore, so enjoy your night.” Many performers manage the whole encore business in different ways, particularly in the many solo cabarets I have seen at 54 Below. Jones just up-front saying they have nothing else for us was surprising and funny and made me love her that much more.
She closes with an absolute bop from 2003, “Brighter Than Sunshine” by Aqualung, a song I had mostly forgotten about, but used to have a stranglehold on me in high school. It transported me back to a time of carefree innocence and made me forget anything else for those few minutes. Talk about magical mushrooms!