You hear Angelina Reaux before you see her at Studio Theatre—her insinuating soprano wafting in from the wings as if someone had opened an alley door and let in the sounds of heartbreak. “I do not know to whom I belong,” she moans, and it doesn’t matter that the lyrics are in untranslated German; you get her drift.
You may not know the song, but you’re probably acquainted with its author: Friedrich Hollander wrote “Falling in Love Again” for Marlene Dietrich, along with many another tune. He was among the thinking men writing for the thinking artists of that short-lived phenomenon called Kabarett, a label struck precisely to set what it described apart from the empty-headed entertainments of the common cabaret. For a decade or two before the Nazis wiped such things away, the kabarett venues of Berlin formed a loosely cohesive scene that was both playground and platform for a confrontational breed of artists with a social conscience—writers and performers who weren’t afraid to turn to an audience that had come to be entertained and rub its collective nose in the mire that was rising all around. It’s that club culture, as opposed to the raunchier cabarets or the lowbrow tingel-tangels where the likes of Dietrich’s Lola sang in The Blue Angel, that Reaux has come to celebrate—and, given that most of the art it gave birth to has all but vanished, to mourn.
It’s hard to imagine a more convincing eulogist. When the lights come up on the singer, she stands framed in a doorway, dark hair shadowing her ample face in a way that somehow points up the sorrow in her eyes, her pale visage a portrait of naked loneliness vandalized by the vivid carmine of her lips. This is an evening of music, yes, with just a woman singing curious old songs and a young man offering graceful support from a piano in the shadows, but it is also an exercise in theater, and before she’s through, Reaux will use those expressive features and that astoundingly malleable voice to lure you from ironic laughter to despair and back. “I do not know to whom I belong,” she sings, and suddenly, if only for a moment, you wonder if you’re so sure about your own situation.
Reaux’s is one of those odd voices that lies precisely at the intersection of musical theater and opera; she has the gifts for both, though on the evidence of this program it looks as if she has the kind of restless ambition that will keep her from ever being entirely satisfied with either.
She can bend her slightly steely sound toward tenderness in a song like Hollander’s “Eine Kleine Sehnsucht” (“A Little Longing”) or push it to the edge of stridency in the same composer’s “Chuck Out All the Men!” and “The Emergency Brake”—two of the generous array of numbers done wholly or partly in English.
With a shift in tone and the lift of an eyebrow, Reaux can inflect her delivery with the slightly flat, bemused quality of the jade (as in “Maskulinum, Femininum,” by writers who’d clearly seen everything without once being impressed); with the greedy accents of Hollander’s “The Kleptomaniac”; or with the voluptuous, comic rapaciousness of a man-eater in “Ich bin ein Vamp!” (“I’m a Vamp!”) a confident, only half-playful display of sensuality.
She can do all that, then turn on a dime, take the first tentative steps down the treacherous path that is Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny,” and summon for the song’s climax a shattering reserve of rage and desperation and hurt that will leave you wondering how she can possibly push her voice so hard. And then, when the program tells you she’s all but finished, she can step back into the light, pick up the thread of lyrical sweetness in Mischa Spoliansky’s “Heute Nacht oder Nie” (“Tonight or Never”), and unspool a sound that’s like a skein of silk velvet—pure, glorious indulgence, with a quick vibrato and a tone as warm and fresh as if she’d just hit her stride.
If the program’s most visceral moments come in the more nakedly emotional fare, the political heritage of the Kabarett is well served in such unforgettables as Weill’s “Seashells From Margate, the Petroleum Song” which begins as a sort of molasses-sweet music-hall reminiscence and transforms itself, verse by verse and line by line, into a bitter saga of capitalism at its most unforgivingly greedy. The overclass is similarly called to account in Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” and Reaux’s stark reading of the latter is as chilling as the fate of the victims in the former. Both, in this singer’s hands, sound disturbingly timely.
Lest Songs and Deadly Sins begin to sound a degree too deadly, it should be noted that Reaux has leavened the program with humor throughout, as in “Vamp” and “Kleptomaniac,” as in Spoliansky’s “L’heure bleu” (“The Blue Hour”), with its narcissist’s rapturously catalogued beauty regimen, and in “Die Grossstadt-Infanterie” (“The Pedestrians’ Rebellion”), a chronicle of a different sort of road rage with text by Hollander and music by Rudolf Nelson.
Even in the lighter moments, though, there is that underlying sense that this is serious social commentary; always, there is a commitment to the material that borders on the terrifying, a sense of theatricality as unerring as it can be unnerving. “I do not know to whom I belong,” Reaux sings, and when her songs are done, she leaves still singing that refrain, her voice haunting the theater after she has disappeared into the dark. A light comes up briefly on a stark black-and-white portrait of the singer, half-visible behind a scrim, and before it fades again, you realize suddenly that that voice and that face will haunt you long after you make your way out the door.CP
On New Year’s Eve, for two performances only, Angelina Reaux presents ‘Round Midnight: A 20th Century Songbook, with works from landmark names and today’s most talented young composers, accompanied by her Deadly Sins pianist, Ricky Ian Gordon.