Here’s What Happened to Baby Jane

Reviewers searching for ways to describe the cabaret singer Baby Jane Dexter often use words like “garrulous” and “bawdy.” True, one hears traces of every barrelhouse belter from Lizzie Miles to Belle Barth in her blue-tinged Big Mama baritone, but since I first became aware of this formidable performer at old, defunct clubs like Eighty-Eights and the Firebird, I have rarely witnessed so profound a change in an artist’s style and repertoire. The refined folks who prefer soft, subtle, smoky voices like June Christy, Peggy Lee and Julie London may find her an acquired taste. God knows, she’s no Blossom Dearie. She’s not even a blossom. A full-bodied tiger lily is more like it. But what she does with what she’s got is pure dynamite.

Glowing and radiant and several pounds lighter than when I saw her last, she is in better shape than ever, both physically and vocally. Her choices in material still reflect too many pop-rock ballads that sound like dirges to my ears. Too many mediocre wastes of time about wondering what might have been, taking the wrong roads through life, and asking “What if?” “I want to feel the touch of my own skin against the sun and against the wind,” she cries. Oh, get over it. But singing them all in a deep, powerful basso profundo, she grows on you, like ivy. Without much analysis, I have come to realize it’s not the songs she sings that counts; it’s the way she sings them. And she’s obviously in love with lyrics. She sings so many songs I never want to hear again that when she throws in a beautifully modulated classic like “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, it almost comes as a shock to the nervous system. But this is happening more and more. She now trusts herself enough to follow the tiresome “Spinning Wheel” with Kander and Ebb’s “I Don’t Remember You.” With the help of her eclectic pianist-arranger-music conductor Ross Patterson, she even surprises with great time and tempo on a rowdy, finger-snapping version of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” that Nellie Lutcher would envy. The patter rambles. She talks about landing in Hair after 13 auditions. She talks about having 17 teeth capped without novocaine. Not always mesmerizing. But she always bounces back, holding her audience in the palm of her hand with passion and a personality warm as sable. Her intensely felt “Why Did I Choose You” is unlike any version I’ve ever heard. She used to fear the great American songs sung by the great American song stylists. The Great American Songbook was not her Bible. Now she’s freer, surer of herself and feeling more comfortable in her own skin. Never before could she have tackled the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” with a spin so unprecedented. And she does it all with a humorous heart and a smile wide as the Mississippi. She holds court for another week at the Metropolitan Room on West 22 Street. If Baby Jane Dexter is an acquired taste, it’s one I have cultivated joyfully.