Amy Beth Williams
Amy Beth Williams is a multi-faceted diamond. As with any good diamond, one is first overwhelmed by the brilliance and the great worth. Upon further inspection, one appreciates the fine edges that can cut through almost anything.
The singer, second runner-up in last summer's Metrostar Challenge Contest, recently made her official post-contest cabaret debut at the Metropolitan Room and aptly demonstrated that she possessed all of those fine qualities: brilliance in choice of material and interpretive ability; a supreme command of her talents, most worthy of the excellent songs; and an edge that can often ride a fine line between opposing emotions, within a breath or a glance-and an edge so sharp it can cut through any phoniness we in the audience might be presenting and pierce straight to our hearts.
In a wide-ranging program, Williams harvests mostly lesser-known gems in the Great American Songbook, while also giving a nod to a few contemporary masters as well. Vocally, she possesses a soprano with a tremulous vibrato, suggesting vulnerability, but she can also belt out in her alto range with the best of them.
Opening with a sly and sensual "I'm Allright" (Becker/Klein/Peyroux), she appears completely at ease, gently swaying in a wine-colored velvet gown, inviting us into her comfortable lair. Don't be fooled for a minute.
Williams is at her best when she rides that edge, as in "Why Can't I Forget?" (Barron/Harris), a humorous recollection by an unmindful woman. She sings lines such as, "I made myself a list of things I really have to find/But where is that list?" But there is a kicker, just beneath the surface of Williams' searching, moist eyes: Why can't she forget the man who left her?
Likewise, with John Bucchino's "Not a Cloud in the Sky," she holds together a façade as fragile as a porcelain teacup on a table's edge, under the most devastating of circumstances in a relationship.
In fact, Williams' show is an exploration of all kinds of relationships, most of them unsafe-which makes for a compelling evening of entertainment and introspection. As an audience member, you are never quite on solid ground with Williams at the mic-and that's about as good as it gets.
Unsafe can take many forms, including comedy. With "Never Try on His Name," a song by Francesca Blumenthal and Daryl Kojak (her musical director), she's not afraid to be cynical, funny and liberated by warning us to go ahead and love our man, but don't take his name or the relationship is through.
Williams earns big laughs with Sondheim's "I Never Do Anything Twice," milking every pause and knowing flick of the eyes in this tale of a Madam's conquests.
In the middle of the show, Williams launches into a rare comic masterpiece, "Teaching Third Grade" (Paley/Marvin), which may well become a signature tune for her. It is a teacher's lament about ending up as a grade school teacher, explaining to a parent why her child was not chosen for a role in a school play. By the time Williams gets to the line, "I need something to fall back on what I've fallen back on," we are both howling with the recognition of having compromised our dreams, and mortified that this woman is teaching.
Williams fearlessly tackles French with Piaf's "L'Hymne a L'Amour," and murder in the intensely mesmerizing "Tango" (Lieber/Stoller).
The material is intelligent from beginning to end, but Williams' emotional bravery keeps it accessible.
She ends her show with the one-two punch of Pink's "Glitter in the Air," delivered in a near-whisper, and Lance Horne's soaring "Last Day on Earth." Both reaffirm Williams' seeming conviction that, no matter the risk and the losses along life's path, love is still to be embraced with ferocity whenever it is offered. A powerful and bracing message that leaves one breathless and weeping with joy.
The singer's patter is minimal but effective. For the most part, she lets the songs tell the stories. Why would she want to diminish the impact of their content by talking too much?
Williams is supported by the marvelous Kojak, whose seamless arrangements add color and support but never interfere, Tom Hubbard on bass, and John Henry Williams (her nephew), a welcome guest on violin. Rex Benincasa, one of the best percussionists in town, doesn't seem to have enough to do here. Williams' set is heavy on the lyricism and is perhaps better served by the piano and strings.
Williams' calling card is her fearlessness, both in her willingness to mine emotion and carry herself with bravery, whatever the storm. To that end, she shouldn't mute that with a pretty velvet gown, but stride to the stage in a sleek pantsuit or jacket and slacks. Her womanhood will not be questioned.
With a little luck and justice, by year's end Amy Beth Williams will be playing Feinstein's, the Algonquin or the Carlyle. With her particular style of cabaret, Williams has few peers.
Amy Beth Williams is back at the Metropolitan Room (www.metropolitanroom.com) on February 24th and March 2nd. Call 212-206-0440 for more details or reservations.