Some time ago, I went to see a No Rules Theatre Company production of The Stephen Schwartz Project and I remember being impressed by a petite brunette with a really, really fierce belt. That brunette, of course, is Carolyn Cole, who made her Signature Theatre debut as Tracy Turnblad in last season’s production of Hairspray (for which she received a Helen Hayes Award). Signature audiences were treated to Carolyn’s vocals once again as she took center stage in her solo cabaret act Born to Take the BELTway (accompanied by the very talented Jenny Cartney on piano). Tackling everything from showtunes, rock, pop, rhythm and blues, to American standards, she more than proved that she’s not just a one-note bubbly, sassy musical theatre actress.
After a giggle-full introduction, she took on a very well-known musical theatre tune much to the delight of the audience. Singing “Cornet Man” from Styne and Merrill’s Funny Girl, she set the bar high for the rest of the night. Of course it was fiercely belted, but she also made it her own. It was not a carbon copy of Barbra Streisand’s version or Idina Menzel’s version (one of my favorites) and that was much appreciated.
I’m always enamored by singers who take on lesser known musical theatre songs and Ms. Cole certainly did that. Her rendition of “Wanting Molly” from the off-Broadway show The New Hopeville Comics: a rock opera was a highlight in that she focused on the lyrical intent and less on showy vocals. An added bonus, it was technically very well sung. Carolyn continued her foray into the contemporary American musical theatre songbook with “I Will Never Leave You” from Krieger and Russell’s Side Show with Matthew deLorenzo (an exquisite young tenor who recently received a Helen Hayes Award for his portrayal of Candy Darling in Pop! at Studio Theatre). Certainly the reason behind them singing the song was quite cute and funny (I won’t spoil it for those of you who might catch Carolyn’s cabaret on July 26), but Cole and DeLorenzo’s natural chemistry and textured vocals made the song compelling for a whole other reason. It also happens to be from one of my favorite musicals ever, so I was very happy that they did it justice.
Cole’s setlist extended far beyond musical theatre and, in that way, she provided a master class on versatile singing. Taking on Adele and Janis Joplin, she proved she also has the chops for pop and rock music that one would hear on the radio. The Joplin song, “Cry Baby” was perhaps the most vocally interesting of the night with riffs and growls galore. It’s clear that Ms. Cole has a killer belt that’s comparable to many Broadway divas, but with this song, she more than proved she can sing a rock song as a rock singer does and not as a musical theatre actress trying to do rock and roll. Her encore, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz was subtle, emotion-filled, and technically impeccable.
Though the banter between songs was a bit cloying at times, Carolyn made it clear that she possesses a musical gift that is among the best DC has to offer. I look forward to seeing her career develop in the Washington area. It was a pleasure to see Carolyn share her story and her songs with the appreciative Signature audience.
Running Time: 60 minutes.
Born to Take the BELTway is being presented as part of the Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret Series at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. Carolyn Cole will be presenting Born to Take the BELTway again on July 26, 2012. For tickets to that performance, or other performances in the series, call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.