by: Jordan Cohen
The title of Lena Hall’s roaring and triumphant rock cabaret at Feinstein’s/54 Below, The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury, is a fitting tribute to her childhood home in San Francisco. Hall explains that her father owned a ballet company where her mother was a ballerina and they frequently hosted various members of San Francisco’s artistic community: local celebrities and bohemians, members of the queer and transgender communities, artists of all races, ethnicities, and outlooks, and sometimes even drunken vagrants. As she describes it, hers was a hippie household filled with an assortment of music, dancing, and art, not to mention the persistent aroma of marijuana and incense.
Through a seamless fusion of personal anecdotes and majestic rock hits, Hall recounts an early life that was in some ways conventional and many ways extraordinary, and which forecasts her future successes on both the rock and musical theatre stages. Indeed, many know Hall as a formidable musical theatre powerhouse, having most recently played Yitzhak, Hedwig’s longsuffering lover and sidekick in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for which she won a 2014 Tony. But perhaps fewer know that for the last several years Hall has fronted the 1970s-New York-inspired rock band, The Deafening.
Dressed in a chic, form-fitting short black jumpsuit and old converses, Hall reveals early that she was a precocious and outspoken kid with few friends, bursting with energy and talent, caught constantly in the crossfire of artistic creation that marked her home life. But Hall didn’t always appreciate the free-spirited, art-infused lifestyle her parents cultivated. Like most kids, she longed to be “normal,” and whether she realized it or not, many of her experiences were indeed common: she dealt with school bullies and getting into trouble, the “loss” of a disinterested older teenage sister caught up in the punk scene, boys with only one thing on their minds, tearful airport goodbyes as she leaves home for the first time. Despite a desire for normalcy, however, her early dance and music training, along with her stunning raw talent, helped her land the role of Demeter in the national tour of Cats at 18, and the rest is Broadway history.
But the musical inspiration for Hall’s show isn’t the Great White Way; instead, Hall performs the songs of her childhood – the classic rock of her parents’ generation that echoed constantly through her house and the new wave, punk, grunge, alternative, folk, and metal of later years that helped define the kind of artist Hall would eventually become. While limiting herself to rock is a risky choice, especially given the venue, Hall knocks every song out of the park, exhibiting a vast range of stylistic techniques that highlight both the eclecticism of the genre and the diversity of her childhood experiences. She even picks up the electric guitar now and then, which she claims she’s been playing for only a month!
Classic rock songs dominate early. Hall begins with the psychedelic hit “White Rabbit” (Jefferson Airplane), communicating perfectly the hallucinogenic experience of a kid born into a hippie house. She nails “Piece of My Heart” (Janis Joplin), landing each note with equal parts passion and musical bravado worthy of the original. Next comes an introspective and perfectly sung version of “She’s Leaving Home” (The Beatles), with delicate back up provided by lead guitarist Watt White.
After a delightful nod to the theme from “Reading Rainbow” (Gluckson and Krauss), Hall goes new wave, art rock, and punk, respectively, with Depeche Mode’s “Somebody,” King Missile’s “Detachable Penis” (hilarious; and how appropriate, she says, given her most recent Broadway success!) and Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the UK,” perfectly thrashing. Next, Hall makes a deep emotional impact with Jeff Buckley’s soulful folk-rock masterpiece “Calling You,” followed by one of the most vocally impressive performances of the night, a piercing, high-flying rendition of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.”
Hall then transitions definitively into the 90s with her take on some of the biggest alt-rock and grunge hits of all time: “Violet” (Courtney Love’s Hole), “My Hero” (Foo Fighters), “Release” (Pearl Jam), and “Karma Police” (Radiohead). Searing guitar, thrusting drumbeats, and spot-on back up compliment Hall’s soaring and explosive vocals in this segment. Her flawless technique is especially showcased in “Karma Police,” which feels like a musical journey in and of itself. Hall’s penultimate number, Alanis Morissette’s “You Learn,” provides a welcome and joyful catharsis (more on point back up is provided by White), and the upbeat finale, “Would I Lie To You” (The Eurhythmics), is a fun and cheeky nod to the special bond forged between performer and audience in the cabaret venue. With an infectious laugh, adroit storytelling skills, and a set of pipes few could match, Lena Hall will be a force to reckon with for years to come.
Hall is accompanied by a group of excellent musicians: Watt White on the electric guitar and backup vocals, as noted earlier; Lee Nadel on electric bass; Brian Fishler on drums; and Chris LoPresto on piano, keyboards, and backup vocals. White also serves as musical director.
Lena Hall, The Villa Satori: Growing Up Haight Ashbury
Now through December 7th.
For dates/times and tickets, visit: http://54below.com/artist/lena-hall/
Or call: (646) 476-3551