If You Knew My Story
Venetian Room, San Francisco, CA, January 29, 2017
Reviewed by Steve Murray for Cabaret Scenes
Tony nominee Carmen Cusack slowly made her way to the stage at the Venetian Room to the plaintive, bluegrass fiddle song “Strong Is the Heart,” followed by the rousing “Tell Me She Didn’t,” both cut from the final score of her star- making turn in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s Bright Star. Right away I knew we were in for a very special evening that turned out to be one of Bay Area Cabaret’s finest shows.
Cusack doesn’t fit the typical Broadway ingénue model, having taken a roundabout track through singing waitress, cruise ship performer, London’s West End and, finally, to the Great White Way. She is a breath of fresh air, quite capable of seamlessly moving from the bluegrass songs of Bright Star to upbeat jazzy versions of “Secret Love” (Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster) from Calamity Jane or material from her roles in Les Misérables, South Pacific, Wicked and Phantom.
Her voice is subtly powerful, neither brash nor belty. She has lovely control and phrasing, evidenced in “Back to Before” (Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty) from Ragtime, and a great rendition of Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington’s “The Nearness of You.” Backed by Musical Director John Boswell, local bassist Daniel Fabricant and Yvette Holzworth on the fiddle, Cusack also showcased her strong songwriting skills on her originals: “Shane,” about an early crush; and “Middle Lane,” homage to her West End friends.
She shined on her audition song for Bright Star, the gospel staple “Wayfaring Stranger,” enhanced by some lovely violin accompaniment by Holzworth. We all got to sing along on Bright Star’s optimistic “Sun Is Gonna Shine,” which she used as a not-so-subtle reference to surviving the current political maelstrom. She followed that with Bright Star’s poignant closing number, “At Long Last,” returning for an encore of “Where Is Love?” (Lionel Bart) from Oliver!.
2016 was quite the year for Cusack, who paid her dues and was amply rewarded with numerous award nominations. Like her character Alice Murphy from Bright Star, she’s a survivor, told in the moving song, and title of her show, “If You Knew My Story.” Kudos to Marilyn Levinson and Bay Area Cabaret on another great show.