by Andrew Poretz . . .

Barb Bailey is a first-rate storyteller.  At Don’t Tell Mama on November 5th, the Chicago-based Barb, long a successful booking agent before becoming a performer herself a decade ago, made her New York cabaret debut with a delightful mix of songs and stories of her journey from an abandoned baby in a box to a glamorous life in the Hollywood hills.  Barb is the kind of person who seems bigger than life, so it was an eye opener when this tiny beauty came to the stage.  Bedecked in a sequined black outfit, red high-heeled shoes and a pink and red rose fascinator, with matching sequins applied to her right cheek with a smile from ear to ear – imagine Dolly Parton as a cabaret singer — she was well received by the smallish but eager audience.  Her heels were so high that she used the mic stand for support for much of her set. 

Backed by musical director and pianist Bobby Schiff, Barb was funny and sang well, at times with a deep sound reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich.  Her greatest talent is her ability to sell a story, whether in the wonderful anecdotes she shared or in her song delivery.  Her fifteen songs were primarily from the Great American Songbook, but included more songs of more recent vintage by Stephen Sondheim, Peter Allen, and Barry Mann.

Barb’s story of abandonment and adoption seems straight out of a Frank Capra movie.  Literally left in a cardboard box inside the front door of the Tally Ho Apartment Building in Wheeling, West Virginia, she was, fittingly, adopted by an actual George Bailey.  This story set up “Just Found Out About Love” (Jimmy McHugh/Harold Adamson). 

For every song, she had a story.  She was so crazy for horses as a child that she grew her hair into a long pony tail so she could “look like a horse.”  Thankfully, she “found boys,” and grew out of that phase.  Her second horse story led to a sensitive rendition of Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” Barb’s story about her brief relationship with the actor Hugh O’Brien segued into “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart).  Her Hollywood stories were vividly entertaining, and her entrancing style had the audience feel like flies on the wall of her encounters, good and bad, whether they involved dating movie stars or getting thrown out of (former Paramount president) Sherry Lansing’s office.

Rather than having an opening act, in mid-show Barb brought up Brandi Disterheft, a Juno Award-winning jazz bassist and singer from Canada, for two songs, “Happy Talk” (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II) and “A Time for Love” (Johnny Mandel/Paul Francis Webster).  Brandi brought her own pianist, Anthony Wosney.  Brandi and Barb are quite different types of performers, and this set served as something of a cleansing of the palate between courses. 

A story about a flirtation with Burt Reynolds, whom Barb reminded of two of his greatest loves (Loni Anderson and Sally Field), led to her strongest song, a bluesy “Cry Me a River” (Arthur Hamilton), and here Barb really connected with the lyric.  Schiff’s playing here was especially soulful.

A powerful encore of “Here’s to Life” (Artie Butler/Phyillis Molinary) was the perfect capper to an evening with Barb Bailey. 

Musical Director:  Bobby Schiff

Photos: Michael Lee Stever

November 5, 2021 Don’t Tell Mama