Just in Time Jenn Gambatese Delivers A Rodgers & Hammerstein Valentine
by Matt Smith
“Tonight is all about love. And not just my love for these two artists, but a celebration of love itself and how these two men were able to capture every facet of it.” And so begins Jenn Gambatese: A Rodgers & Hammerstein Valentine… and oh, what a Valentine it is.
The evening not only serves as a full-out ode to the late, great songwriting team behind such groundbreaking hits as The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, and Carousel, but as a promo concert of sorts for her equally gorgeous new album released (not so coincidentally) on the same day. The combo is simply pure bliss, and you come to realize there’s really no better person to lend her voice to the wonderful music of these two incomparable men.
The show itself is brilliantly constructed. The School of Rock standout effortlessly maneuvers through the R&H catalogue by grouping the numbers together into categories or, as she calls them, “facets,” of love — infatuation, maturity, pure sex, and children — which all, obviously, serve to support the Valentine’s Day element of the show. To that end, she touches on love of all kinds — for a spouse, for a long-passed loved ones, and for a newborn child. To boot, she’s supported by equally impressive guest artists, Allison Luff, Tally Sessions, Jeff Kready and Nikki Renée Daniels, and the “best three-piece band in all of Manhattan,” (Peter Grant, Steve Count, and musical director Jerome Korman). Again, pure bliss you just can’t beat.
I also really appreciated Gambatese’s natural ability to just be herself throughout her show, which also fuses together her impressively complex, insightful understanding with an equally impressive peek into her personal life, allowing her to show off her quirky, goofy, witty side, and give us a glimpse of Jenn just being Jenn. (Her deadpan delivery of “Do you guys remember that musical… the one with the lemons on the poster [In My Life, in which she met her husband Curtis Cregan]… as if it were writing its own reviews?” was a particular ROFL moment!)
And while the evening focused mainly on songs from the aforementioned album (“Hello, Young Lovers” and the fresh, blues-y take on “My Favorite Things” among some of the many highlights), we were also gifted with a few exclusive “off-the-record” bonus treats. One of these — one of the notably moving moments in the show — came when she gave us “Getting to Know You,” re-worked as a ballad, as a montage of images of her children — “my best and greatest teachers” — appeared behind her… before segueing into “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” dedicated to all the children in the world. An incredibly powerful medley whose lyrics stand out when paired together in that way!
At another point, quoting Billy Bigelow’s famous Carousel line — “What if she is a he?” — she launches into a bright, brassy medley of traditionally male numbers, including “Poor Jud is Dead,” “Nothing Like a Dame,” and the incomparable “Soliloquy” allowing herself the chance to live out roles she acknowledges she’ll never actually be able to play in real life. (Again, a glimpse at the quirky, goofy, letting-loose-and-having-fun Jenn here).
But what struck me most of all, while the songs themselves were no doubt wonderful as is, was the sincerity Gambatese brought to each one. She truly lives the lyrics as she sings, and her visceral connection to each word illuminates, as she says, “the natural, poetic accurate descriptions of the world,” emphasizing the importance of Hammerstein’s metaphors, and allowing us to experience the beauty of Rodgers’ “most perfect emotionally evocative melodies.” In short, she’s not just a fan — she’s a student, and her affinity and appreciation for this duo extends so far that she’s dissected every word in order to give you, the people, the best performance possible. Of course, every performer aims to do that in concert, but here, it’s as if she figures she, in a way, owes it to these guys… and it’s admirable… and you appreciate it. As a result, you’ll care about the material — if you didn’t already, because it’s magical, musical genius as is — because you’ll see how much she cares about the material… and you can’t help but be affected.
Was this the goal in the first place? We’ll never know for sure, but Gambatese undeniably achieves it. She’s just real… living life in all its glory, reveling in her own cockeyed optimism… and there’s no doubt you’ll love every minute of it.
Jenn Gambatese: A Rodgers and Hammerstein Valentine played Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street), on February 9th. For more information, including samples of her new R&H album, visit www.jenngambatese.com. For venue information, visit www.54below.com.