A New York cabaret star returns to San Miguel
By Fredric Dannen
The cabaret performer Baby Jane Dexter, whom the New York Times calls “maybe the most talented singer” in the field of cabaret, rarely gives shows outside of Manhattan, where her annual appearances at the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street, her venue of choice for the past few years, are always packed. Yet she did come to San Miguel once, in March of 2005, at my personal invitation (we became friends in the 1990s when I was a staff writer for Vanity Fair), and gave one performance at the Teatro Ángela Peralta. Her Peralta show sold out so rapidly that the theater was compelled to add several rows of chairs to the back of the downstairs orchestra section. The concert was a sensation and ever since, sanmiguelenses have been asking me, “When is she coming back?”
Baby Jane Dexter, with Ken Bichel
“Rules of the Road”
Fri, Jan 31, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
The time is finally at hand. Critics raved about Dexter’s most recent show, “Rules of the Road,” calling it her best ever, and last summer over lunch at a Thai restaurant in Manhattan, I persuaded her to bring the show here after her final performance of “Rules” at the Metropolitan Room. The one hitch was that her accompanist, Ross Patterson, was unable to make the trip. That problem was solved when Ken Bichel, San Miguel’s most accomplished pianist and a star in his own right, agreed to step in. “Rules of the Road” will be presented one time only at the Peralta at 7pm on January 31. Tickets are on sale only at the theater (300 pesos for orchestra, 150 pesos for balcony), and even the top ticket price is roughly half of what it costs to see Dexter at the Metropolitan Room.
Dexter is a veteran performer—she was in the original Broadway company of Hair, and a headliner at the famous Reno Sweeney’s nightclub in 1970s—and displays no sign of slowing down. “Age is just a number,” she says, adding: “My number is unpublished.” She has been voted Best Female Vocalist no fewer than five times by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs. Writing in The New York Observer, the columnist Rex Reed described one of her performances as “heartbreaking enough to knock your socks off,” and New York Times critic Stephen Holden, among her biggest admirers, added, “Ms. Dexter has the power of a mighty gospel singer with the will to move heaven and earth.”
Dexter’s shows are always built around a theme and the songs carefully chosen from a broad palette. “Rules of the Road” addresses the always complicated and often antagonistic relationship of the sexes. Her musical offerings range from the familiar (e.g., the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”; Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Something to Live For”) to the unexpected (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”) to the obscure (Randy Newman’s forgotten gem “Shining”). Reviewing “Rules” in the Times, Stephen Holden wrote, “Ms. Dexter’s eye for exceptional songs from all areas of the musical map is as keen as ever,” and on another occasion said, “Her interpretations of everything from Bob Dylan to Rodgers and Hammerstein have the force of body blows.”
Dexter, who took the stage name Baby Jane because there was already a Jane Dexter in the theater union—her mother—grew up in Garden City, Long Island. (Another reason Dexter is drawn to San Miguel is that her former Garden City minister, Farley Wheelwright, makes his home here.) Though her talent for singing became apparent at an early age, Dexter was neither pushed to perform nor given voice lessons. Instead, her parents sent her
to an elite all-girl academy in Toronto, an arrangement that was short-lived. “I went to finishing school,” she says, “and got an incomplete.”
Dexter got her first big break at the Improvisation, a midtown comedy club where the comedy was interspersed with singing; she was sandwiched between Jay Leno and Andy Kaufman. The maitre d’ at the Improvisation was the actor Danny Aiello, who helped her find work as a solo act. Before long, she was a headliner at Reno Sweeney, and on her way to stardom.