Mary Sue Daniels’s delightful show at Don’t Tell Mama—”Straight Outta ‘Conda” (directed by Lina Koutrakos)—had something good in common with the previous show I reviewed for this site: Jen Fellman’s “Frenchy.” Both were staged memoirs in which carefully chosen songs were integrated into a narrative that would be solid without any music at all. Also like Fellman, Daniels is a natural-born storyteller who always seemed eager to share her experiences. The spoken portions of “Straight Outta ‘Conda” were studded with bright, telling details, which helped her listeners clearly envision her early childhood adventures as a rambunctious (and precocious) tomboy in the old copper-mining town of Anaconda, Montana.
Not all childhoods provide suitable fodder for a compelling cabaret show. Or rather, perhaps not all cabaret performers have the skill to pinpoint and then present to an audience what was compelling about their childhoods. Daniels has that skill. When she described a forbidden trip to Cemetery Hill or her time hula-ing in a local dance school as part of a physical therapy prescription, her young life became fascinating. You got a sense of Anaconda: a burg situated in wide-open Big Sky Country, yet made oppressive by nosy neighbors presuming to know everyone else’s business. You also got a sense of who she was: a kid who loved going to the Frontier Tavern with her mother, perching on a saddle-seated barstool and stuffing the jukebox with coins. Was she really, as she claimed in the show, a social smoker at age five? If that was a fib, it was a fabulous one. Anyway, aren’t embellishments built into many of the stories we tell about our early lives? Perhaps Daniels simply has a good sense about which little exaggerations are most stage-worthy.
Throughout the show she displayed an openhearted spirit, a gentle brand of self-deprecation, a dry sense of humor, and sharp comic timing. In short, she seemed like someone you’d like to hang out with over a beer or coffee. Hers is a medium-sized singing voice. But in a number like “Song of Bernadette” (Leonard Cohen, Jennifer Warnes, Bill Elliott)—with its themes of mercy and compassion—that voice seemed to swell to something grand. Her concentration, her care with lyrics, and her straightforward and heartfelt delivery helped make the number fly.
Some of the titles that she performed were character or story songs that nicely complemented the spoken tales she told. For instance, after describing her teacher at Catholic school, Sister Constanza (nicknamed “Sister Can’t-Stand-Ya”), Daniels launched into Michael Peter Smith’s amusing yet poignant “Sister Clarissa.” And while a reference to a “Broadway Bridge” in Joni Mitchell’s “Cherokee Louise” pegs the title character as a girl from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (where Mitchell spent part of her adolescence), Daniels made the shunned and abused Louise seem just as believably an Anacondan.
The show has room for growth. The transition linking the part of the show about Daniels’s life in Montana with that about her life in New York could benefit from further development. And she and musical director Rick Jensen would be wise to rethink the loudly played piano accompaniment on Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” It cramped her vocals and got in the way of the song’s joyful epiphanic sentiment.
Other than that, Jensen’s contributions were very fine—and the inclusion of his very moving “Tonight, New York City,” performed near the show’s end, was wonderful. The song beautifully showed how Daniels’s childhood cravings for experience and connection have continued to burn, even though Big Sky has long since given way to Big Apple. With a single hearing, “Tonight, New York City” became a candidate for my all-time favorite New York City song.
“Straight Outta ‘Conda”
Don’t Tell Mama – June 9, 11, October 9, December 14