In the last couple of years, San Francisco went from no Emily Skinner to new and improved now with 200 percent more Emily Skinner. The Tony-nominated actor (Side Show) was suddenly making regular appearances on our stages. In October of 2014, Skinner revealed her star power in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (read about it here),
in May of last year, she was a highlight of American Conservatory Theater’s A Little Night Music (read about it here). The question is how did we get so lucky?
On Sunday, March 6, Skinner made her San Francisco concert debut as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season, and her show was everything her local fans could have wanted: nearly 90 minutes of Skinner showing us why she’s one of the best in the business known as Broadway (pronounced broadWAY).
Skinner’s combination of charm, confidence and vocal mastery makes for a mightily entertaining show. Accompanied by John Fisher on piano, Skinner moved easily through a set of songs that mixed comedy, character and trenchant emotion. She turned to Kander and Ebb twice, once on the opener “Everybody’s Girl” from Steel Pier and later in the show with When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago. Both are saucy, which is something Skinner does well, perhaps because she admits to a fascination with Mae West, whom she channeled brilliantly on the signature “Come Up and See Me Some Time.”
The out-and-out comedy numbers, like “Here Comes the Ballad” (which Wally Harper apparently wrote for Barbara Cook) and “Bald” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, delivered reliable laughs. And the character tunes – Ursula the Sea Witch’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid, Sondheim’s angry “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along and Noël Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away – found something a little meatier than simply comedy.
When Skinner decides to take a breath and play it straight, there’s magic in her balladry. Her powerful, unadorned take on Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” made a familiar song sound fresh, and the poignant “I Don’t Need a Roof” from Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish made a strong case for taking another look at the score from this short-lived Broadway show. The grown-up lullaby “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom was hypnotic and lulling in the best possible way.
It turns out that when Skinner was asked to audition for Side Show, they didn’t request an up-tempo and a ballad. Rather, they asked auditioners to perform a song that revelealed something about themselves, about who they are. Skinner chose a tune written by Side Show composer Bill Russell from the song/monologue cycle Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, and she got the job. Now having heard her perform the number, it’s no surprise why. Her version of “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” is a deeply emotional experience, filled with warmth, love and pain. It’s one of those songs (and performances) that’s like a three-act play all contained in a few unforgettable minutes.
Skinner closed her set with a spare and achingly lovely “For All We Know,” and it left the audience – hooting and hollering and on their feet – wanting more, and that seems just right. Now that Emily Skinner is making regular stops in San Francisco, it will be exciting to see what she does here next.
In her cabaret show, Emily Skinner sings “Send in the Clowns,” probably Sondheim’s most popular and well-covered song. Skinner turned to YouTube to sample different interpretations, and two of her favorites are versions by Cher and Dame Judi Dench. Please enjoy this mini-“Clowns’ fest.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The Bay Area Cabaret season in the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel continues with the fabulous Puppini Sisters April 17 (5:30 p.m. show is sold out; 2 p.m. show added); Bay Area Teen Idol 2015 on May 15; Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway’s From West Side Story to Wicked on May 22. Visit www.bayareacabaret.org or call 415-927-4636.