Ami Brabson brought a solid and occasionally glimmering soprano instrument, a broad smile and easy confidence to her celebration of phenomenal woman in her life to the Metropolitan Room on June 4, 2016. Brabson may be known to you on sight; by her name, less so. She is an accomplished dramatic theater and television actress, and her stage presence, poise, grace, memory and communication skills testify to the utility of that training. All of those abilities were put to good effect during Brabson’s performance; the hands were in frequent motion, and most parts of the face.
Brabson came late to song having taken it up on a whim only about a dozen years ago to pursue classical training with Dita Delman, now director of the New Jersey State Repertory Opera. About three years ago, for a birthday treat for herself, she sought out local vocal instruction for cabaret-focused work and came upon her current teacher Corinna Sowers Adler, the director of this show. Brabson pursues music with joy, and fills the time between acting roles honing her new craft and researching, writing, and organizing performance material (as well as ministering to a family that includes three musical sons).
Phenomenal Women celebrates very specific women inspirational to Brabson – not only performers but poets, politicians, pedants and parents. Bits of musical numbers were interspersed with snippets of relevant stories or poems – some read, some portrayed. This was not an evening to indulge in the American Songbook; this was a more cerebral undertaking and suggested an academic and political sensibility underlying the material not commonly called on in this setting (as contrasted with emotional intelligence – which one hopes always to find.)
The first “phenomenal woman” to be recognized was Brabson’s mother. Emerging from a Cleveland high school, Brabson attended a north eastern college, a fish out of water; she called home expecting a reassuring consent to her withdrawal – but mom staunchly refused to acquiesce before Brabson had given the school a chance. Brabson found that to be the hard and wise choice that has paid dividends all of her life. She sang Welcome the Rain (Goldrich & Heisler), written from the perspective of a child afraid of a storm who matures to understand that the tumult of the storm brings both good and bad, experience and wonder. (Keep an ear out generally for Goldrich and Heisler material; they have flown under the radar for too long and deserve broader play for their wry wit and unique sensibilities.) That was followed by Thank You (Boyz II Men).
Singing “I’m a Woman”
Dita Delman (see above) next got the nod, a quote from Marianne Williamson (about our deepest fear being not inadequacy but power beyond measure, of meeting the standard that god set for each of us) and a musical piece intercutting Joe Reposo’s Sing (pop) with Stephano Donaudy’s Spirate (classical).
Phoebe Snow was recognized for the courage, joy, wonder and transcendence with which she left show business to dedicate her life to raising Valerie, a brain damaged daughter, until Valerie’s early demise at 31. For Snow, Brabson sang Love Makes a Woman (C. Davis, G. Sims, E. Record & W. Sanders), formerly sung by Snow.
Brabson recognized Barbara Lee, a California congress-person who, on September 14, 2001, cast the sole vote against a bill authorizing a military response to the attack on the World Trade Center (and related events), arguing instead for more time to assess and understand the event: “As we act, let us not become the evil we deplore…”.
In the process of honoring Lee, Brabson cracked up the audience contrasting her home town cheerleading exposure with that of her college experience – at the opening of a Cleveland Bluehawks basketball game: “you bad! Jump up ‘n’ get it; you bad! Jump up ‘n’ get it!”. She sang I Am a Woman (Lieber & Stoller), taking on various persona (and props) with each verse, and again educed laughter, in the guise of a woman with sass but less obvious class, as she hiked her breasts.
Channeling Clarissa Davis
She celebrated Ruby Dee (“Thanks to Ruby Dee for allowing me to dream a little bit bigger”); Clarissa Davis, a slave woman who recorded the experience of her treacherous escape, and Dorcas Johnson, a poetess.
The source material was varied – e.g., Alicia Keys, Boyz II Men, Lennon & McCartney, Ruby Dee, Dorcas Johnson, Clarissa Davis, Maya Angelou – but the connection between each piece and the woman being celebrated was made clear; Brabson’s sincerity was apparent. But a strong, well modulated voice, a self-aware sense of humor and good intentions do not make a typical evening of cabaret. Although musical, this was an intellectual rather than a sensual event, as much theater as song. Do not go to this show expecting to sit idle; to squeeze the juice from this show, you have to meet Brabson half way. It is however worth the journey.
The performance was ably supported by James Horan on piano, Christian Fabian on bass and eldest son Michael Braugher on the DJembe drum, all of whom contributed some vocal back up (and Braugher, some vocal beat box). The show was directed by Corinna Sowers Adler. Dita Delman was in attendance, as were Corinna Sowers Adler, Brabson’s mother, husband Andre and sons Isaiah and John Wesley. The sense of family, and pride in family, were evident and charming. The show closed to hoots, whistles, cheers and a broad ovation. Yes, the audience included some friends and family, but the love was real and enthusiastic.
Photos by Fred R. Cohen. See his website.