Can it really be that accomplished chanteuse Jessica Molaskey is only now making her solo nightclub debut? Given the polished set currently on offer at The Oak Room through January 29, Molaskey undeniably gives off the charm and assuredness of a cabaret vet.
Celebrating the release of her newest CD Make Believe, a compilation of jazzy and sophisticated arrangements of classic show tunes, Molaskey and her back-up trio firmly stake out a place for themselves in the upper echelon of cabaret performance by making "old chestnuts" feel brand new. Molaskey and her band offer inventive takes that sparkle, never burdening the songs with overstylized jazz arrangements. Jerome Kern's "Make Believe" from Show Boat, for example, no longer sounds like it's from a 1927 operetta, while Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Cain't Say No" is happily freed from its often overly perky Oklahoma! trappings, and is instead turned into a coy wink at the audience.
Infused with selections from her previous CDs, Pentimento and A Good Day, Molaskey's sharp program never suffers a misstep. For those who aren't familiar with some of her self-penned songs (written with husband John Pizzarelli), they are included in the evening as well and are of the highest caliber, from the lyrically witty and catchy "How Come You Ain't Got Me" to the poignant "The Girl With His Smile and My Eyes." These new songs, which hopefully will go on to become cabaret classics in their own right, mesh seamlessly with the evening's more well-known numbers and never feel out of place.
If one wishes that Molaskey might not have performed most of the evening sitting on a stool, such a fact is compensated by her deft interpretations of lyrics, which convey great depth. Indeed, one of Molaskey's greatest assets is that she never oversells a song, but rather finds the truth in a lyric without overpowering it, as heard in her simple yet moving rendition of Irving Berlin's "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." Molaskey's rich alto voice, with its clear pitch and unmannered phrasing, effortlessly glides into a pure and sparkling upper register with songs such as "What'll I Do" and "Goodnight My Someone."
It doesn't hurt either that Molaskey is backed by one of the strongest trios around. Larry Goldings offers sensitive piano accompaniment while Martin Pizzarelli on bass underscores the evening's mellow, jazzy feel. It's Molaskey's husband, John Pizzarelli, on guitar, though, who really shines, and his playing on "Stepsister's Lament," one of the evening's more upbeat selections, is a particular standout. When the two of them perform together, the program really cooks. They give off real chemistry in their contemporary answer to Irving Berlin's "An Old-Fashioned Wedding" by effectively combining Jon Hendricks's "Cloudburst" (Pizzarelli) with Sondheim's "Not Getting Married Today" (Molaskey).
Though this a debut performance, Molaskey's expansive stage experience allows her to easily work the audience with her polished, funny, and happily unobtrusive patter. "Make Believe" is a must-see show, and given the freezing temperatures outside, Molaskey's performance offers some much needed mid-winter magic and warmth on these chilly nights.
Jessica Molaskey - "Make Believe" continues at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel through January 29. Please see the Algonquin Hotel website for their cabaret schedule and rates.
All three of Jessica's CDs are available from PSClassics.com.
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