At the Strathmore’s new AMP venue last night, musical theater star and singer extraordinaire Emily Skinner, dazzled the crowd-with her always winning combination of a soaring purity of tone and the ability to interpret a lyric like Frank or Ella. Skinner’s voice is truly one to make the Gods envious; her vocal instrument can plummet to a low growl or peak to a silvery silken soprano. Indeed, they should be lining up to compose original new musicals for this woman!
In the set of seventeen songs that she literally delivered with a “chameleon –like actress’” skill, Skinner actually seemed to transfigure her talent into the essence of the intent of each and every song she sang. Like Streisand (especially in Streisand’s earlier days of theatricality), Skinner possesses the inherent and instinctive ability to “act out” each song as a theatrical compartmentalized piece of pizazz that becomes a deep musical link between the artist and the audience member. Skinner’s voce is precise and technically perfect yet, concurrently, elastic and rangy when hitting a crescendo or emitting a low, resonant growl.
Ms. Skinners’ theatrical credits are numerous and she is truly a singer who “acts” her songs. I first fell in love with Skinner’s skill as she co-starred with Alice Ripley in the original Broadway production of Side Show. My enthusiasm was further honed when I heard her two successive Duets albums with Ms. Ripley and —especially –when I heard Skinner’s solo album.
I had the honor of reviewing her Kennedy Center appearance in Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series in 2012, and I got a glimpse of her superior acting chops in Arlington’s Signature Theatre’s production of The Witches of Eastwick and The Kennedy Center’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
This evening was a particular delight as Skinner interspersed lively and opinionated patter in between almost every song.
Accompanied by a wonderful pianist, Gabriel Mangiante, Skinner opened with the rousing and sexy “Everybody’s Girl” (from Kander and Ebb’s Steel Pier) and she then proceeded to musicalize the numerous double-entendres to hilarious effect.
Skinner charmed the crowd with the personal tale of being a hyper child who always loved listening to Broadway show tunes. She specifically liked Barbara Cook’s singing and recalled Cook’s famous role as Marian, the librarian, from The Music Man.
Skinner’s rendition of the comic song “Here Comes the Ballad” was delivered with the requisite speedy verbal and convoluted patter. She followed up with her favorite “Villainess” song as the evil witch Ursula singing the vocally demanding “Poor Unfortunate Soul” from The Little Mermaid. Skinner howled with malicious glee as she sang in an amusing yet malevolent manner.
Continuing with songs of a witty bent, Skinner built up to a hysterically funny hymn to the hairless as she sang Goldrich and Heissler’s “I Want Them Bald.”
Skinner’s cover of the oft-performed Sondheim standard “Send in the Clowns” was delivered in a daring and slightly ambiguous manner which fits the subtlety of this song. She seemed to place her musical hook in the line “One Who Can’t Move” as her touchstone to this evocative and poetic song. (Skinner mentioned that there are numerous renditions of this song on “YouTube” and that she was very interested in Dame Judi Dench’s angry and defiant cover of the song).
From Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens, Skinner delivered a stunning, heart wrenching cry of pain to those who perished in the AIDS epidemic —-“My Brother Lived in San Francisco” (by Bill Russell). She started out in a disarmingly matter–of-fact, conversational style of singing as he sang about her brother and, then, made the collective feeling of grief all-encompassing as she transitioned into her devastating and plaintive finale.
Skinner next sang a sensuous and moving rendition of Rupert Holmes’ “Moonfall” from The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She has a particularly interesting vocal style in that she so effectively prolongs her very rounded vowels to induce a feeling of identification with the listener but concludes with sharp consonants that never jar the ear (You can always count on understanding every word Ms. Skinner sings and this never seems forced).
“Sleepy Man” from the much under-appreciated musical The Robber Bridegroom is my personal favorite of Skinner’s entire catalogue. In her rendition of this song, one can almost see a partner watching the every breath that the sleeping partner takes. She caresses each note of this gorgeous song as she sings this adoring ode to her sleeping lover.
A sexy and robust cover of Kander and Ebb’s “When You’re Good to Mama” (from Chicago) captured all the comic dynamism of this clever number.
Sondheim’s beautiful “No One is Alone” (from Into the Woods) was delivered with an utter understanding of the complexity of the vagaries of life (not to mention the deceptively complex lyrics by Sondheim –which Skinner addressed in her comments about the double meanings in the song).
Skinner said that she is not overly fond of all the new composers but that she is very impressed by Andrew Lippa—who wrote the score for Big Fish (which had a much too-short run on Broadway). She then launched into Lippa’s very evolved song “I Don’t Need A Roof.”
With a vocal instrument like Skinner possesses and a classic standard by Irving Berlin —how can you go wrong? Indeed, Skinner sang the hell out of Berlin’s “I Got Lost In His Arms” from Annie Get Your Gun. (Has there ever been a line that said so much in so few words?: namely –Berlin’s glorious line of loving affirmation: “I got lost but look what I found”). She made the heart cry for joy.
Skinner next launched into a very theatrically stunning and moving cover of Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life” from Mame.
She dedicated this classic song to all the “Billy Elliots” that she had performed with several years back —when she was performing in the Broadway production of Billy Elliot. She transitioned from a myriad of moods to a bracing climax.
Next up, Skinner delineated a sardonic and sarcastic delivery of Noel Coward’s very witty “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away, and made amusing comments about the horrors of travel that helped enhance the meaning of this deliciously satiric song.
As the evening neared its conclusion, Skinner paid a wonderful tribute to Mae West by singing the sly and earthy “Come Up and See Me Sometime”. She concluded the evening with a reflective and haunting rendition of the classic song “For All We Know” to sustained applause.
Emily Skinner is a talent to be savored. Her prodigious talent demands to be reckoned with.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Emily Skinner’s website.
Hear Emily Skinner sing “Sleepy Man” (From the CD Raw at Town Hall) and and “My Brother Lives in San Francisco” From the Original Cast Concert Album of Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens here.