Feinstein’s 54 Below, seen Thursday August 30, 2018
Next performance: Thursday September 6, 2018 7:00 SOLD OUT | Future performances TBA
The opening vamp is familiar, the slinky-slouchy movements of the two performers as they make their way to center stage from opposite sides of the house are iconic, and as they launch into Kander & Ebb’s “We Just Move On,” (written for the film version of “Chicago” and sung over the end credits), Jana Robbins and Haley Swindal gently but firmly grab their audience by the throat, and don’t let go for more than an hour of pure, unadulterated joy.
Written and directed by Robbins, with the astutely superb musical direction of Joe Goodrich, this is quite simply one of the most exciting and polished evenings currently on the New York cabaret scene. Robbins & Swindal, two powerhouse performers in their own right, combine and combust with an exhilarating energy that builds throughout the evening, whether they’re performing soulful ballads, raucous up tempos, or knock ‘em in the aisles comedy songs.
Swindal, in particular, shines with expert comic timing with her patter, and her plaintive, soulful rendition of “Why Can’t I Speak?” (Zorba, 1968) is a beautiful example of an artist totally connected to the text, taking her audience along with her on the journey of a young woman bewildered by her feelings about the new man in her life.
Likewise, Robbins gut-wrenchingly beautiful interpretation of “Isn’t It Better?” (Funny Lady, 1975) showed this normally brassy performer in a quieter, far more vulnerable light than usual, and it was a gorgeously touching highlight of the evening.
And together, they performed a series of numbers from “The Rink” (1984); performing as the mother and daughter at the heart of that under-appreciated musical, one was struck with the thought that someone, somewhere, should mount a full-production of the show for them. Robbins tore through “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” with ferocious comic aplomb, while Swindal took what is probably the most famous song from the score, “Colored Lights,” and made it fresh, poignant, and most definitely her own. And they brought the house down with their duet “The Apple Doesn’t Fall,” in which mother and daughter reluctantly, and hilariously, discover they’re not so very different.
And then they topped it with “The Grass Is Always Greener” (Woman Of The Year, 1981), another comic duet; the two of them displayed such genuine joy trying to outdo each other in verse after verse of convulsively funny new lyrics tailored by and for the performers, they left the audience both cheering and gasping for breath.
If there’s one caveat, it would be that the show is an embarrassment of riches, particularly the two aforementioned numbers. Similar in structure and tone, and both so very funny, it begs the question: are they both needed? But which one could be cut, or should be? A very good problem to have.
In any event, this is a show to treasure. Rumor has it they’ll be back at 54 Below in a few months. If God is good, they’ll not only be back in a few months, they’ll also run for a few months. They, and the show they’ve created, are that good.
Piano: Joe Goodrich
Bass: Matt Scharfglass
Drums: Barbara Merjan