Lena Hall Makes It Home

27 Apr

April 24 and 25 Lena Hall appeared at the Nikko Hotel’s Feinstein Room, presumably to capacity crowds both nights. I managed a reservation for Saturday buying Viognier and some cheese for what seemed a modest price to listen to one ninety minute performance of Lena and four musicians. She
appeared with her musical director, Watt White, plus three locals, piano, drums and guitar whom she praised for a first-time Thursday night rehearsal of her set.

For those of you unfamiliar with her name, Lena Hall won a Tony recently for her appearance in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, plus a two-week gig at New York City’s Carlyle Hotel. Behind her were leads in Kinky Boots, Tarzan and a good stretch in Cats, the musical in which she made her first professional appearance in one of its traveling ensembles. She was just twenty when I saw her in Cats in San Jose.

There she stood for ninety minutes in a two-piece nearly total silver sequin outfit, (fabric unadorned from mid-back shoulder to waist), and an ingenious left hand, middle ring finger through wrist set of crystal beads accessory and pumps with their current fashion of extra high wedge, belting out songs I never heard of nor did I find particularly captivating. (You need to realize that mine is the Frank Sinatra, Perry Como generation for popular music choices; Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin or the Beatles were mostly lost on me.)

What mesmerized me was the strength of the voice emerging from Hall’s slender body with the possessor’s command of impeccable American Southern takes on the English language. It was little surprise Hall helped herself to sips of water from a plastic bottle frequently. Via a Southern-born maternal grandmother, I am attuned to a drawl and the softness of tone, while surprised at the punch of Hall’s delivery and her sustenato in the final line of the lyrics.

Hall was received with deafening applause. Next to me was Jared Kassof, a young executive from Sephora, who had seen her on Broadway and had become a good fan of hers; he said he had obtained the last seat available for this show.

During the ninety minutes Lena provided introductory comments to most, if not all, the songs she had selected, Led Zepplin was familiar to me, but the names of Eric Clapton, David Byrne and Tori Amos sent me to Wikipedia to expand contemporary musical education. I found Clapton’s use of a French phrase, je’c’est ca, plus “fa,fa,fa” an intriguing foray into that funny mixture fo English and French which can appear so affected, but in song, okay. Lena’s comment that “for her generation” Tori Amos was like Chopin was equally provocative, taking Wikipedia’s info to understand.

Mid-way through the concert, Lena talked about herself, mentioning her Tony and a benefit concert for Elaine Stritch at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre where the Carlyn Hotel management approached her regarding a gig. Lena remarked, “But you know I’m not a sweet ballad style,” or words to that effect. The management said they wanted to attract a younger crown and to do “whatever you want.” Her gig there included Bynre’s “Psycho-Killer” and the use of a tambourine. Lena also disclosed growing up in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, mentioning the colorful interior of the family home.

Periodically a man in front of me rose enthusiastically, after Lena had finished either head and torso forward or arched backward, all depending on the nature of the lyrics. At times the atmosphere, despite the glowing scarlet draperies, mike and musicians, seemed a tad like a carnival with Hall as the sideshow barker, edgy though free of tawdry qualities.

All this, plus the many times her face at an angle displayed the same jawline of her mother Carolyn, a quality in her smile part of the smarts her mother had given her which Lena had cheerfully accepted as part of her heritage of talent. Carlos, her father, said Lena’s ear had always been acute and that she had picked up Chopin on the piano without lessons, simply by hearing the tones and replicating them on the keys.

The intimate crowd provided a standing ovation at the conclusion of Lena Hall’s set. She stood outside, obliging fans with photographs, poised, friendly. Carlos greeted Lena’s former classmates at SOTA, the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts, while Carolyn and I shared impressions about the facial similarities. As Carlos Carvajal likes to say of his daughter, born Celina, “From Manila to Broadway in four generations.”

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