Tess Primack: She’s Doing the Work

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Tess Primack

She’s Doing the Work

The Green Room 42, NYC, October 11, 2019

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg for Cabaret Scenes

Tess Primack

Tess Primack is a formidable musical theater performer. That cannot be denied—just hear her deliver her opening number, “The Lady’s Improving” with complete authority. She is also smart and clever and has a fascinating ear for unlikely songs that can blend together for surprising theatrical effect. A prime example was the mix of Pat Benatar’s “Anxiety (Get Nervous)” (Neil Giraldo and William Steinberg) and John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Sing Happy.” Her program traced her spiritual exploration of her life, at times celebrating it and at times mocking it. In fact, the evening was more of a one-person play than a cabaret act. There was the rub—not because it can’t work but because in this case it was as much a hindrance to the performer as it was a help.

Two problems arose. The first was that Primark was so connected to the script that when, on several occasions, she went up on her lines, instead of simply improvising until she got back on book, she halted the show while going through the physical script to find her place. This both broke the rhythm of the program and made it clear to the audience just how rehearsed the piece was; actually, the best cabaret shows feel more relaxed and extemporaneous. The second was that there were long stretches of monologues without music, including an uncomfortable attempt at audience participation.

Happier were musical moments, including the interweaving of “I Have Confidence” with tales of self-help groups, and a sublime “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” with Primack stretched out on the piano and torching the song in a style reminiscent of Linda Ronstadt’s albums of standards.

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Later on came another intriguing pairing of songs with a highly dramatic “Being Alive” and a meditative “Both Sides Now.” Her encore was a hysterical number written for her by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, “I See the Light,” which allowed her to be looser and more focused on the performance of a number, rather than hobbled by a script.

Hopefully, in the future, director Will Nunziata will help her to be freer on the stage. Charming Matt Moisey provided strong support as the music director and occasionally actor, with Shu Odamura on guitar and Jessie Nelson on drums also contributing to the fun. It will be interesting to see Primack come into her own as a cabaret entertainer in the future, embracing the intimacy and spontaneity of the art form.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."