The Oak Room, at the Plaza Hotel, is a woody, ornate humidor of a room. But on Monday night it was imbued with a considerably more contemporary vibe. Alexa Ray Joel, aspiring pop star and the singular offspring of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley, was set to give the second in a regular series of weekly after-dinner performances.
The room, which began to fill up as Ms. Joel’s set approached, was adorned with a Dom Pérignon banner, giving the space the feel of a Gilded Age DJ booth, and the attendees skewed decidedly non-pensioner, and more outer-borough, than the usual cabaret bunch.
“This is a fairly different crowd than is usually at these things,” said one observer, as a group at an adjacent tables passed iPhones among themselves. “Usually there are a fair number of people who have to be walked in,” she continued. “I would say for sure this is a much younger crowd than usual. And a fair number of people who are unhappy, like they just decided to do this because they heard it was happening.”
The space has a storied history, and in fact the hallway outside was hung with black-and-white images of the Plaza’s heyday: Aristotle and Jackie Onassis escorting a school-age John Kennedy Jr., Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, Dr. Joyce Brothers surrounded by the Beatles. Among these, somewhat incongruously, was the beaming, poster-size image of Ms. Joel, all teeth and chest, behind a piano.
Ms. Joel, who has been pursing a music career with mixed results for several years, is beginning a regular Monday-night engagement at the Plaza.
“I’m pretty sure this is a lot of her extended family sitting to our right,” the observer noted, gesturing to a large table of men in large cuff links and large tie knots, and women with flat-ironed hair. “If I was stoned, I would adore this dessert,” she said, absently digging into the Oak Room’s signature chocolate dish, the Oak Bar. “Every table around us is talking about percentages,” she pointed out. And it was the case. To one side was a discussion of real estate margins, while to the other the relative value of Christmas gifts given and received was being debated.
Ms. Joel’s backing band took the stage first, and they were a lithe and stylish bunch, wearing skinny jeans, skinny ties and skinny shirts. The mop-top group looked more like an early aughts opening act at Brownie’s than a cabaret ensemble. “The poor guys. They’re like little Walkmen onstage,” said the observer, referring to the downtown indie band. “They must feel really awkward about playing this place.”
Waiting in the wings, Ms. Joel spit her gum into a napkin while a woman flitted around her face with a make-up brush. Taking a quick swig from a glass of whiskey, she smiled into the room and mounted the stage.
Wearing Yves Saint Laurent heels and a deep purple Zac Posen dress with an A-line skirt and ample décolletage, the 25-year-old Ms. Joel took her place behind the microphone. The scene resembled nothing so much as a gender reversal of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, with the girl in the party dress at the front and the eerily similar boy-waifs in monochrome swaying in time behind her.
Joel made her way through several Top 40–sounding songs that oscillated between bubble-gum and forced emotional urgency, stitched together with catchy choruses, before decamping to the keyboard.
“I’m gonna walk over to the piano now and do some solo stuff now. Does that work for you guys?” The generous crowd responded with a unanimous yes, and Ms. Joel seated herself behind the baby grand. “I was really influenced by Pink Floyd.” She stopped abruptly and said, “Hold on, I think I’m being saved.” A member of the band hovered behind her and it seemed he might be dissuading her from discussing Pink Floyd as an influence. But he was only helping adjust her chair. She continued, “I was thinking about ‘Comfortably Numb’ when I wrote this. I think you guys will hear that.” Comfortable numbness did come to mind.
Rejoining Joel onstage, the band began strumming the opening chords of “Ring of Fire” and it was hard not to fear for the rendition that was on its way. An odd thing happened, however: She actually made it work.
It turns out Ms. Joel can’t smolder, brood, emote, slut it up, stare it down, look at it sideways, or strip it bare—or maybe even sing—but she can effervesce. Her version of Johnny Cash’s dark anthem takes on a bouncy insouciance, and as she pantomimes along to the song—raised eyebrows, selectively placed smiles to the crowd, and sly looks over her shoulder—Ms. Joel takes on the endearing air of a Tennessee deacon’s daughter playing the church dance. She would kill in a Broadway musical.
By contrast, as if to show this sort of thing is her forte, Ms. Joel later launched into the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” in a barely recognizable arrangement. (It is a testament to the greatness of the song that, even in this, um, alien form, it is still impossible not to tap one’s feet to it.)
Abandoning the sketchy foray into rock legend, the smiley chanteuse returned to what is clearly her home turf. Her current single, “Notice Me,” has the rollicking girlishness that seems to suit her best, and the set ended on a decidedly upbeat note.
After the show, Ms. Joel was solicitous, repeatedly asking how the show was. Sweetly, she told The Observer, “I’m trying to cover all ends of the spectrum. Everybody always says to me, what’s your target audience? I’d love to hit everybody. I’d love to relate to young, old, men, women, you know, a lot of where I’m coming from is very feminine. At the same time, I want to bring in that sex appeal and that sauciness to gain the male crowd.”
She continued, talking of musical influences like Radiohead, June Carter, Regina Spektor and Lily Allen. But of the musical multitudes she contains, certainly there is one she conspicuously omitted.
“Everybody knows that I’m his daughter,” she said, acknowledging the Piano Man in the room. “It’s a very fine like to walk, because I of course don’t want to do his material regularly, because I have to make it on my own, and with my own material. But it’s such a huge influence, it feels dishonest to ignore it. My goal is to gain credibility on my own with out disrespecting my roots, where I come from. If you come back next week, I’m doing like an ode to my dad, just one song.”
“I think my dad’s gonna be here,” she added conspiratorially.