Jenny Magnus

at Link’s Hall, August 31

Nothing leaks at a Jenny Magnus show; everything is sealed in tight. Even when the inevitable microphone fails or prop collapses, she never misses a beat. So I approached Magnus’s Ah Me Oh My with some trepidation. Performing as part of the Chance Dance festival at Link’s Hall, curated by Bob Eisen, she had decided to sing 17 songs, each in a different way. The songs themselves would be selected randomly from a deck of cards, and the manner in which they were to be sung would be determined by drawing from another deck of cards.

Magnus told me beforehand that she was “working on the idea of being unprepared.” I cringed–mostly, I think, from the memory of so many performers who had achieved that all too well. And though it may be vital for artists to explore new challenges, I’m not entirely convinced that the exploration should take place before a paying audience.

Magnus’s cool, often cerebral stage persona isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, but I’ve always enjoyed her irony and savage vulnerability. Although Magnus is quite funny, and often quite self-effacing, hers is a bleak, sober humor. And even though her performances often involve some interaction with the audience, she splits that fourth wall little more than a crack. When she leaves the stage during a show, she’s always in character, always in control. At times she’s even seemed uncomfortable breaking away from her stage persona–she’s notorious for disappearing after performances. So, while I had little doubt that Magnus could pull off this randomized concert, I was concerned about whether she could ease up enough to have fun, and whether we’d enjoy the show.

On the last evening in August, following a formidable dance performance by Eisen and his collaborators, Magnus took the stage in a loose knit black skirt and sleeveless black top. Her tossed hair had been bleached–but that wasn’t as shocking as the change in her demeanor. Magnus was completely relaxed, utterly warm and personal, smiling and laughing. That this was a songfest, not a straight dramatic performance, did not explain the change. Even onstage with the romp-and-rock art group Maestro Subgum & the Whole, she has seldom been that loose; in her own torch-singing sets, her persona has remained dark, if playful.

But here she was, talking as naturally as to a bunch of friends in her living room getting ready to play a game. Magnus explained the rules for the night and drafted a couple of people to shuffle the decks of cards. And she not only explained just what she was going to do but why. She told us about her need to loosen up onstage, about her postshow reputation, about her own rigid standards. She said that even though this show was about relaxing, she wasn’t sure she could completely let go, and that to make things easier for herself she intended to cringe after every number, whether it was good or bad, just to make herself feel better.

She performed the first tune, an original titled “Lady on Her Feet,” in a throaty bluesy style. Evocative, empathetic, it was more traditional in form and lyrical content than many of the others. Afterward Magnus cringed. Then came another original, “Take a Break,” which alluded to her recent experiences working with four other artists building a nightclub (the Lunar Cabaret, coming in October). Though her other work has been filled with quirky images and metaphors, this one surprised with its plain narrative and linear lyrics. She cringed again.

And so it went, each song performed a cappella on a bare stage, with Magnus changing persona, position, or attitude. Some tunes were absurd, some about the desolation of middle-class existence, some seemingly about dreams. All but three–Bertolt Brecht’s “Good That Way” and “All of a Sudden” and Beau O’Reilly’s “I Would Marry the Bird”–were originals. “Good That Way” proved the most memorable; O’Reilly’s piece was one of the most delicately performed. Magnus was in good voice, charming, even charismatic. After each song she cringed–sometimes more believably, sometimes less. There was much playfulness and good humor. Ah Me Oh My provided a delightful peek at an artist experimenting in a very personal way. And yet there were problems.

For starters, the cards that determined how Magnus performed the songs contained insular references to her friends and relatives. She did one song pretending to be “John.” Who’s John? She did another as “Alex as Susie.” Understanding the references wasn’t absolutely necessary to enjoy the program, but her handling of them, as if they should be understood, was a bit alienating–unintentionally producing, I think, an effect opposite to what was intended. Magnus cult members may know everyone in her artistic family, but most of us don’t–and we don’t get what the three insiders in the fourth row are laughing about.

Perhaps most disturbing, though, was the show’s evanescent effect. Even though Magnus may well be the sharper songwriter in Maestro, not one original song on this program was particularly memorable. That didn’t detract from the overall good feeling, but it certainly raised some morning-after doubts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tamara Staples.