New York cabaret star Baby Jane Dexter returns to Chicago this week with a new show, The Real Thing–a collection of love songs Dexter calls “an intimate opera,” which suggests she’ll be doing less talking and more singing this time around. That’s not necessarily good: Dexter’s open-hearted, big-mouthed spontaneity is a natural complement to her vocal style, a gritty yet surprisingly supple sound that injects the adrenaline of blues and rock into the usually mellow milieu of cabaret. A big, boisterous earth mother with ratted hair and a huge, husky voice, Dexter alternately recalls Janis Joplin, Mama Cass, Etta James, and 60s folk chanteuse Judy Henske, but she’s very much her own woman, capable of poignant expressiveness, brassy comedy, and rafter-raising power. Her almost improbably broad repertoire is part of her appeal: in The Real Thing, splendidly supported by pianist Ross Patterson, she juxtaposes vintage tunes by Tin Pan Alley master Sammy Cahn and jazz great Duke Ellington with numbers by folk rockers like Michelle Shocked and John Hiatt. What these schizophrenic selections have in common, aside from all being love songs, is the compelling authenticity and individuality she brings to each one. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 9 PM, and Fridays and Saturdays, 9 and 11 PM, through May 15, Toulouse Cognac Bar, 2140 N. Lincoln Park West; 773-665-9071. Albert Williams

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