Carmen Cusack: Cabaret Debut at Feinsteins/54Below

If you liked Steve Martin/Edie Brickell’s Bright Star, you’ll love this evening, which boasts a great many numbers performed in and cut from that show. (You even get to sing along to “Sun is Gonna Shine.”) It was the role of a lifetime for the talented Carmen Cusack. Though already a veteran, with much of her stage time garnered in London, the performer’s actual life experience was close enough to the character of Alice Murphy she couldn’t initially sing certain lyrics without crying. The southern accent and inflection are quite real, subjugated elsewhere it seems, with focus.

Taking the path of least resistance on her initial outing, Cusack offers selections from musicals in which she’s appeared including Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Ragtime, Parade, and Wicked. This last, featuring a duet with guest Katie Rose Clark,  Glinda to her Elphaba, arrived a tear-stained, love fest reunion. (Clark is an engaging actress/singer) Like most of the rest of the evening, each and every one of these choices is an 11:00 o’clock number, showcasing that soaring voice and remarkable control.

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James Shelton’s 1950 “Lilac Wine”…Sweet and heady/Like my love… emerges a welcome exception. Elongated, cottony notes sail just above the lightest, shimmering cymbal (Dean Sharenow) and thrum, thrum bass (Alex Eckhardt.) Also in this vein is the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger” enhanced by Martha McDonnell’s extraordinary fiddle and Joe Jung’s fine guitar.

Cusack is deeply invested. Music courses through her lithe body compelling movement – arms rise and descend, palms open or fist, eyes close- savoring; her head snaps back, the right leg pumps or stamps…nothing occurs without palpable stimulus. Massaging of notes, slip/slide octave changes, gospel roots and the yodel style she particularly utilized in Bright Star are signatures. “Stop” (Sam Brown/Gregg Sutton/Bruce Brody), apparently “a huge hit in the UK,” is serious R & B. The artist gets her teeth into it with cool ferocity.

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As herself, Cusack is loosey goosey on stage, right down to what I can only call backyard clothes, seeming lack of make-up and untamed hair- incomprehensible in a theater professional. She alas shares few stories about her experience. I say alas, because those we do hear- like that of her Phantom of the Opera audition and warm personal background on two of her own compositions, is charming. The better of the latter, “Middle Lane,” is a pensive and prettily told short story about boon companions in London. Cusack accompanies herself on acoustic guitar.

The evening ends with Phil Hanesroth’s “Story”: All of these lines across my face/Tell you the story of who I am…But these stories don’t mean anything/When you’ve got no one to tell them to/It’s true… I was made for you…Verses are quiet reflections, choruses, funky, foot-tappin’ and BIG. “This is for you honey,” she calls out to her husband across the room. Everyone leaves smiling.

The band is crackerjack.

Photos by Maryann Lopinto

Carmen Cusack at Feinstein’s 54Below
Anthony De Angeles- MD/Piano
Dean Sharenow- Drums, Joe Jung-Guitar, Alex Eckhardt- Bass, Martha McDonnell-Fiddle
August 14 and 16- Call for WAIT LIST

About Alix Cohen (514 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.