Singer Carmen Cusack has amassed an extensive collection of vocal riffs and shadings from pop, rock, folk, country, gospel, and R&B genres. Her background is as a musical-theatre performer—which may help explain her chameleonic quality. Though she hails from Denver, she gained much experience in London’s West End, where she appeared in Les Misérables and The Secret Garden. She’s performed as Elphaba in Wicked in Chicago and Australia and on the road. And last year she received a Tony nomination for her performance in the bluegrass-infused musical Bright Star. The range in musical style found in these credits speaks to her versatility.
At an April 16 gig at Feinstein’s/54 Below (an Easter-night “makeup” show replacing a performance canceled because of the March blizzard), Cusack’s voice was athletic and showy. She made her entrance wending her way through the audience, performing a growly rendition of her own composition “Along the Way,” sung in part through a bullhorn. The effect was part Rudy Vallee and part Britney Spears. She followed this with a Bright Star medley. (Throughout the evening, she sang several songs from the show’s Steve Martin/Edie Brickell score.) At points in the medley she wailed like Céline Dion, but with a kind of Gaelic tinge.
Her voice took on some twang in “Songbird,” a pretty country-ish ballad by Christine McVie. And it was particularly effective in the rousing gospel-oriented “People Get Ready” (Curtis Mayfield). On Sara Bareilles’s “She Used to Be Mine” from Waitress (a song that’s fast becoming a cabaret standard), Cusack had the same sort of yodel-like sound that Jesse Mueller utilized on Broadway.
So, yes—versatility. Much like a talented vaudevillian performer of bird calls, Cusack has a roster of chirps, trills, and warbles at the ready that is meant to impress—and it does.
And yet, I found myself wondering exactly what her default sound is. It’s not always a snap for theatre singers to make the transition to a club setting because they may never have established a sound that is distinctively their own. Even when performing songs that she wrote herself—and she indeed has considerable talent as a composer—she seemed to be adopting a particular sound or style, rather than singing from her own inner core. And it wasn’t always clear to whom she was singing. At times she seemed almost to direct her voice above or beyond the audience rather than to them. (Could that be because, as a theatre performer, she feels, reflexively, that there’s a mezzanine and a balcony to play to?)
The sense that she’s not yet entirely comfortable performing in her own skin extended to her between-songs patter. She took a loose, what-the-hell approach to her interactions with the audience. Yet she seemed keyed up, a bit ill at ease. For instance, she wished listeners a happy Easter three times in the first few minutes of the show. She attributed her scattered quality in part to exhaustion. She had come from a Pete Seeger tribute show in Washington the previous evening and was headed out to Michigan the next morning for another engagement. At one point she admitted that she was running on two hours’ sleep. Yet wouldn’t someone with musical-theatre touring experience be used to that kind of schedule and prepare accordingly? (To be fair, many in the crowd appreciated Cusack’s off-beat, off-the-cuff remarks more than I did. Certainly, there were moments of personal charm, but I think she could benefit greatly from mapping out a firmer game plan for her spoken passages.)
Cusack was supported by a five-piece band, led by Rodney Bush, that was first rate. Joe Jung was a standout, performing an energetic guitar solo during “Songbird.” He also provided some easygoing vocals in a duet with Cusack of “I Had a Vision,” from Bright Star.
An upcoming project for Cusack, she told us, is an album featuring her own material. I hope that that endeavor will help her better focus on just what kind of singer she wants to be, outside the strictures of a book musical.
Feinstein’s/54 Below – March 8, 15, 16, April 16