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Jessica Molaskey, the Bright New Face -- and Voice -- of High-End Cabaret

By Terry Teachout
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page N02


One of the perennial joys of following the arts in Second City is the unparalleled opportunity it gives me to watch promising artists become themselves. I've had an eye on Jessica Molaskey ever since she sang her first cabaret gig, so I knew what it meant when she made her debut in January at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel -- and blew the roof off. I've seen my share of big-deal Algonquin debuts, including Diana Krall's very first Oak Room appearance, and I'm here to tell you:

This one was that good.

Molaskey is a Broadway baby (formerly of "Crazy for You" and "Dream") who, like other musical-comedy artists of her generation, was finding it hard to land decent parts in the dance-driven, rock-flavored shows that now dominate the New York stage. Instead of tearing her hair out, she decided to look for another way to make a living. Molaskey happens to be married to jazz singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli, so she started off sitting in at his New York gigs. Bit by bit she cracked the code of cabaret singing, gradually figuring out how to work a small room. She grew more self-assured with each appearance -- and more people started to notice.

At long last, the Algonquin got the message and booked her for a week, backed by her husband on guitar, brother-in-law Martin Pizzarelli on bass, and Larry Goldings, one of Los Angeles's top session men, on piano. Talk about seizing the day: Molaskey tore into her first set as if she'd been singing cabaret in the cradle. Her singing was warmly inviting, her interpretations subtle, her patter super-sly, her pacing infallible. The first-nighters were wowed by her medley of Cy Coleman's "Hey, Look Me Over!" and "Big Spender," which she followed with a string of tried-and-true standards ("Make Believe") and where-have-I-heard-that-before surprises ("Stepsisters' Lament"), and by evening's end it was perfectly obvious that high-end cabaret in Manhattan had found itself a New Face of 2005.

Speaking of new faces, let me tell you about Heather Raffo, the author-performer of "9 Parts of Desire," now playing downtown at Manhattan Ensemble Theater. Her unexpected success is partly a matter of luck -- I can't think of a better time for an Iraqi American actress to be starring in a one-woman show about life in Iraq -- but mostly because Raffo is very, very good, not merely as a performer but also as a writer with a keen ear for telling dialogue.

Raffo plays nine different women in "9 Parts of Desire," all drawn from life (the script is based on her interviews) and plausible in every way, not least their widely varying points of view. She pulls each one on like a pair of tights, transforming herself so completely from scene to scene that you wouldn't know her if you saw her on the street after the show (I did, and didn't). The results are blessedly free of political ax-grinding: I'm sure Raffo has a point of view, but I couldn't tell you what it is. Instead, her interest is in showing you what it felt like to be a woman in Iraq, both during and after the bloody reign of Saddam Hussein, and out of the mouths of her precisely drawn characters come jolting sentences that tell you what no journalist can ("Now they steal women for money or to sell them. I try to tell mama she won't get stolen. Her hair is not that nice").

After postponing its closing night three times, "9 Parts of Desire" is now running on an open-ended basis, and judging by the events of the past few days, I doubt it's going to close anytime soon, though I wouldn't be greatly surprised if it moved to a larger house.

Try to catch it now if you can, though: Raffo's performance ranks right up there with that of Jefferson Mays in "I Am My Own Wife," and such finely detailed acting is best seen in a small house.

Needless to say, Audra McDonald isn't a new face, but we don't get to see her in New York nearly as often as I'd like. Now that Broadway has less and less to offer a great singer, McDonald is spending more and more time giving concerts, most recently the one with which she opened the current season of Lincoln Center's "American Songbook" series. I went to the second performance, which was a good thing, since the abrupt onset of intestinal flu had forced McDonald to cancel the first one. She spent most of the concert perched on a high stool, sipping Gatorade between tunes, but still sounded like her superlative self.

The program was mainly devoted to the work of contemporary pop singer-songwriters -- not McDonald's usual fare, to be sure, but she relished the chance to expand her already wide range still further. I was particularly struck by her rueful version of Rufus Wainwright's "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," which isn't a song I would ever have expected her to try on for size. (Wainwright's self-laceratingly wry vignettes have been making an impression on other New York singers as well: Julia Dollison and Ben Monder, for instance, did a heart-catching jazz version of "Poses" last week at Sweet Rhythm.)

Here are some other things that spun my head in January:

• Jane Freilicher has a retrospective, "Paintings 1954-2004," up at Tibor de Nagy Gallery through Feb. 12. It's a stunner, two dozen life-enhancing paintings that show off her deceptively quiet style -- not altogether unlike Bonnard, yet utterly American in tone and tint -- to excellent advantage. The show really belongs in a museum, but this way you don't have to pay to get in.

• Chris Thile, Nickel Creek's mandolin master, is on tour with Edgar Meyer, the best bass player in the world. Their first stop was Zankel Hall, the lovely little concert hall in the basement of Carnegie Hall, where they played a set of acoustic duets that were by turns complex, direct, funky, pensive and ecstatic. After the second number, Thile looked out at the crowd and shouted, "Carnegie . . . freaking . . . Hall!" It was his first time inside the sacred precincts, and I never saw anybody look so happy -- unless it was the audience.

• Balletomanes are buzzing about New York City Ballet's Sofiane Sylve, with whom I caught up last week in the second pas de trois of George Balanchine's "Agon." Now I've joined the chorus. Sylve is still coming into focus, but she's already exceedingly elegant and sexy, and she stole the show right out from under Wendy Whelan, who danced the pas de deux. My eyes are now officially peeled.

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