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Saturday, 12 April 2014 12:29

Taylor Pietz: 'If I Only Had a Brain' - yes, she does

Written by Chuck Lavazzi

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Taylor Pietz: 'If I Only Had a Brain' - yes, she does

The title of actor/singer Taylor Pietz's show "If I Only Had a Brain" is somewhat deceptive. She not only clearly has a brain, she has put it to good use concocting a fresh, funny, and polished cabaret evening that gave the old "this is my life" school of cabaret a quirky, self-effacing spin.

I'm not normally a big fan of the autobiographical approach, but she made it work well, providing a nice theatrical through line for her song choices.

I should point out that I have known Ms. Pietz professionally for over a decade now. We first met during a production of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" nearly eleven years ago when she was 17 and I was—well—eleven years less old than I am now. I was playing Senator Wingwoah and she, appropriately, was playing Shy. I say "appropriately" because she struck me than as a somewhat shy young lady—but with terrific pipes and impressive acting skills.

The ensuing years have only sharpened those skills and developed that voice into a lovely precision musical instrument. That old shyness seems to have morphed into a kind of pixyish, cheerfully ironic stage persona. With her first song ("Put on a Happy Face" from "Bye Bye Birdie") she projected a combination of poise and vulnerability that immediately got (and kept) the audience on her side.

That opening number allowed her to talk about how being an actress involved putting on somebody else's happy (or sad) face and losing yourself in a role. Her real life, she noted, was closer to the lyrics of her next song, Jamie Cullum's "Twentysomething." And, in fact, the end of that song's refrain—"I'm still having fun and I guess that's the key / I'm a twentysomething and I'll keep being me"—was something of a recurring theme throughout the evening. If this show had a message, it would probably be Polonius's admonition to Hamlet: "to thine own self be true."

For the rest of the show, Ms. Pietz touched on subjects such as her checkered academic career ("Don't Wanna Be Here" from Adam Gwon's "Ordinary Days" and "No Reason at All" from Jonathan Reid Gealt's "Thirteen Stories Down"), her questionable dating decisions ("Fuck Was I" by Jenny Owen Youngs), and her inability, as a freelancer, to turn down a project, no matter how insane ("I Cain't Say No," with clever new lyrics by Ms. Pietz).

As you might gather from that last paragraph, "If I Only Had a Brain" heavily favored newer singer/songwriters and the younger generation of theatre composers. I'm happy to say there were a number of songs here I'd never heard before, which is something that happens all too rarely, at least in my experience. When she did turn her attention to a classic, though (such as her title song), she made it entirely her own.

Of course, every cabaret show is a team effort, and Ms. Pietz had some pretty substantial talent to help shape this one. Her music director and pianist, Justin Smolik, has been the resident music director of New Line Theatre (where Ms. Pietz and I first met) since 2010 and has worked with many local professional companies. His arrangements fitted Ms. Pietz's voice and style like a well-tailored suit and delivered some surprises along the way. I was especially taken with his semi-ragtime approach to the Beatles classic "Help."

Directing Ms. Pietz was local cabaret and theatre veteran Ken Haller, whose own shows have been big critical and commercial successes. He and Ms. Pietz gave a nice shape to the show, with the kind of dramatic arc I associate with a well-planned cabaret evening.

"If I Only Had a Brain" finished in appropriately upbeat style with "That's Life," after which Ms. Pietz came back to accompany herself on a number of her own. It's still a work in progress, but her current title for it is "That's What My Daddy Said." I won't tell you exactly what her daddy said, but I will note that 1) it was another "to thine own self be true" message and 2) it brought her show to a conclusion that was as unexpected as it was funny.

And the audience loved it.

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