Theatre in Review: Barb Jungr: Hard Rain (59E59)
Barb Jungr doesn't interpret songs; she moves in, takes possession, and thoroughly renovates them, somehow making them into deeply personal statements without betraying their original intent. In her new program, Hard Rain, which is drawn from her most recent CD release, she focuses on the songs of two of her idols, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. It's safe to say you've never heard them performed quite like this.
Armed with a powerful stage presence; a bright smile that can, by degrees, slip into a grimace of fury; and a full-body approach to singing -- you could almost say the numbers take possession of her -- Jungr applies her fierce intelligence to the words and music of Dylan and Cohen, with riveting results. Her chosen subjects are not among the popular songbook's chief optimists -- as one of Cohen's lyrics notes, "I have seen the future, baby/It is murder" -- and Jungr freely admits that, having reached the age of 60, she is fed up with the world's corruption and greed. (I hasten to add that her patter is full of battily amusing, seemingly off-the-cuff observations; recalling that she debuted this particular program, filled as it is with sentiments guaranteed to shred the soul of any romantic, on February 14, she adds, laughing, "I know how to deliver Valentine's Day!") And yet, while rooting around in the often bitter conclusions and savage imagery of these songs, she finds a remarkable range of feeling.
She comes out swinging, pasting a gallows-humor smile on the run-on lyrics of Dylan's "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)," and adopts a hard shell of cynicism for "Things Have Changed," the anthem of someone who has given up on a world gone mad. She turns Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" into a tough-minded jazz waltz about the satanic legacy of slavery. But if she gets every dark note out of "Everybody Knows" -- Cohen's lament that the game is over and the bad guys have won -- there is something almost spectral in her version of "First We Take Manhattan," with its apocalyptic intimations. In the later numbers, Jungr goes to a deeper, more haunted place, offering almost delicate interpretations of songs that are rife with scalding imagery. She gives a caressing tenderness to "Chimes of Freedom," which, we are told, are "Tolling for the deaf an' blind, tolling for the mute/Tolling for the mistreated, mateless mother, the mistitled prostitute/For the misdemeanor outlaw, chased and cheated by pursuit." And she lends a powerful sense of regret to Cohen's "A Thousand Kisses Deep." And, finally, she offers a kind of redemption in "Blowin' in the Wind," which becomes her wholehearted admission that, in the long run, it's all out of our hands, anyway.
"A song is true every time you sing it," Jungr says, and that's as good a description as any of the intense personal connection she establishes with the music and lyrics, carefully weighing each note and syllable for its authenticity before releasing it to us. Such honesty is addictive: Two or three songs into the program, you find you're no longer merely listening; instead, you have fallen utterly under her spell.
As usual, Jungr travels in fine company, with excellent backup from pianist Tracy Stark and percussionist Mike Lunoe. A resident of London, Jungr has in the last decade or so made a habit of dropping by New York once a year. Her performances are not to be missed; each one is a revelation.--David Barbour