SOMEWHERE in the neglected nether regions of your record rack, in the Sensitive Sixties Singer-Songwriter section, are probably a few dusty albums by Laura Nyro and Randy Newman.
Some of the finest songs by Newman and Nyro have been rescued from video-age oblivion and recast as cabaret at D.C. Space by the troupe that put together the long-running "A Jacques Brel Cabaret." It's a novel venture that has paid off handsomely, if unevenly.
Chosen by director/arranger/pianist Roy Barber, the songs -- dramatic, emotionally vivid vignettes condensed into brief pop songs -- are surprisingly well-suited to cabaret. Barber's five singers are obviously comfortable together, and their ensemble work is particularly fine.
Though her songs have dated more obviously than Newman's, Nyro fares better in this forum. Her confessional lyrics, about private struggles and elations, are sometimes so personal as to be obscure, but her elusive, untethered melodies, a unique hybrid of Tin Pan Alley pop and high-spirited jazzy gospel, are universally accessible, and should bring back a few welcome memories.
This company's three women have mastered Nyro's singing style, a clear vibratoless soprano that can make thrilling ascents and then plunge to mournful depths. Paula Burns is particularly notable, acting and singing a thrilling "Captain St. Lucifer," about redemption through drugs. She also does a quiet, moving "I Never Meant to Hurt You" with Brian Davis, whose fine tenor is well-used throughout.
There's little of the confessional poet about Newman, who plays the mordant social observer, lifting rocks to look at lonely, unfortunate characters, as in the poignantly funny "Wedding in Cherokee County," and a bleak, chilling scene from a life in "Baltimore."
Barber has also chosen some of Newman's more politically provocative stuff: "Political Science" and "God's Song" take a Tom Lehrer-ish bite at the impending apocalypse. Likewise, the truly nasty "Rednecks" and the hit "Short People" were calculated to offend, and this troupe doesn't miss Newman's point, though they make a mistake in overplaying the cuteness in "Short People." Newman's melodies don't come across as memorably as they might, and the songs call for more character and texture than they get here.
Pianist Roy Barber (he sings, too) uses the piano as a skeletal rhythmic frame, bringing the singers to the forefront and heightening the plentiful drama in each song.