by Matt Smith
“As someone with a lot of friends who do cabaret shows, I know what it takes to see a friend’s cabaret show.”
Sure, her hubby Santino may be captivating audiences in his nightly Tony-winning turn in Tootsie, but Monday night, it was clear all eyes were on comic actress Jessica Fontana, who took to the Cutting Room stage to debut a daring, dynamic solo show of her own.
Using the singular glue that is Fontana’s acclaimed soprano, the evening fuses heart and humility in story and song to provide you a truly unique experience you may not soon forget. Referencing cheesesteaks, Falsettos, and Britney Spears all in the first ten minutes, it’s clear this woman is as delightfully and unapologetically kooky as she is talented, which, in that sense, proves the show’s title to be undeniably true: what you see is what you get.
It begins as your typical cabaret would, the first few songs taking on a traditional autobiographical form, punctuating poignant moments in her early life and career, while flashing projections add an extra visual panache. She presents herself as she is, letting you know she ain’t here to mess around (what you see is what you get after all, right?), but again, she’s quirky and she knows it, indulging in her silly side right off the bat, first hilariously repurposing a Lerner and Lane classic into a lament for prepubescence, and then dedicating a slightly more contemporary Brandy hit to the many boys she silently admired in middle school.
Like every acting professional out there, Fontana’s had her struggles, leading her to reconsider her place in the business (and, to some extent, the world at large), crippled with fear, gasping for air while drowning in a literal pool of self-doubt. So, in an effort to circumvent the negativity, the evening spends a significant portion exploring what “pulled her out of the rabbit hole,” so to speak: a cathartic, transformational acting class helmed by Zach, a strapping, sensitive gentleman who gradually champions her into a state of self-acceptance. Through her work in the class, as she details, Fontana begins to gain more control of her life, feel more confident about herself and her abilities, and permanently cast aside all the doubts that used to debilitate her.
But as she tells us, while she’s training with him on an exclusive studio retreat in his Costa Rica bungalow, she learns Zach may have other plans for her than she was originally expecting, and he may not be as truthful or well-intentioned as Fontana has led us to believe. Which, in turn, makes us, as audience members, ultimately reconsider what we believe to be the truth in the world.
Perhaps starting with exactly what we’re seeing in front of us. Is it really cabaret, or is it an extended dramatic monologue set to song? Or is it simply just a theatrical piece chronicling a woman publicly going down a shame spiral?
In introducing the following ideas and posing these questions, Fontana creates a deliciously delectable evening that, on one hand, ultimately has no real answer. And that’s okay. As we learn throughout the evening, you don’t have to have all the answers. You have the power and permission to leave things as they are.
But, as she mentions in a cleverly-crafted “breakthrough” moment, if you do want something, go after it. Because you’re in control and you have the equal permission to claim that power and take what you want. So, what it is . . . envision it . . . believe it . . . feel it . . . see it . . . really see it . . . and you can have it. Because at the end of the day, what you see is what you get.
And in that vein, much like Fontana herself, if you see yourself in the market for an epic, transformative evening that’ll make you laugh, possibly cry, and ultimately, make you think (but maybe that’s partly because you’re just semi-confused as to whatever insanely creative warped universe you’ve just encased yourself in for the last hour), all phenomenally captained by a woman who’s just so gosh-darn passionate about everything she sings. . . watch for Jess next time wherever she’s appearing.
Photos: John Behlmann
Jessica Fontana: What You See is What You Get played the Cutting Room (44 E. 32nd Street) on June 13th and 17th. For further information on future performances, visit www.jessica-fontana.com or search @whatyouseeplay on Twitter.