In her new show at Don’t Tell Mama, She Bangs, She Bangs: Marriage, Adultery, Texas & Jesus, actress-singer Jennifer Bangs delivers one of the most soul-baring cabaret programs I have ever seen. The show (directed by Tanya Moberly) is a true confession, told in excruciating detail. Bangs relates the story of her broken marriage along with some adultery-filled digressions, weaving in a dozen or so musical numbers—mostly pop tunes of fairly recent vintage.
Our heroine grows up devoutly Christian and resolutely chaste in the Lone Star State before relocating to California to pursue a showbiz career. There she meets the perfect—no, beyond perfect—guy (or so she thinks). “James” plans an elaborate marriage-proposal stunt, which must have taken considerable ingenuity to pull off. But as Bangs relates this anecdote, you can almost hear an alarm going off in the distance, blatting “Danger, Jennifer Bangs! Too good to be true!” Sure enough, not long after the vows are spoken (but long enough for a baby boy to come into the world), the relationship starts to fracture.
Bangs is a bit of a sly raconteur. Partway into the story, she backs up and provides exculpatory info about James that she’s previously withheld. Whether she has omitted this info merely to make the story more manageable or to make herself seem more sympathetic is not clear. But the revelation’s delay makes us somewhat suspicious about her reliability as a narrator. That said, as the plot accelerates, she is certainly not shy about fessing up to her own questionable judgment and less-than-exemplary behavior. Some details about the sexual goings-on inside and outside the marriage made me want to shout out, “Too much information!” Maybe there’s something therapeutic about telling her story in such clinical detail. I hope so. In any event, the goal of Christian forgiveness that Bangs aspires to proves a hard one to attain.
Meanwhile, is any of this entertaining? I suppose so—in the same way that demolition derbies can be entertaining. But it’s certainly engrossing.
Director Moberly, in her own shows and in those of others, has often dispensed with between-songs patter, instead choosing to have a bit of chat at the beginning of a set and then a bit more just before the end. But lately, she has also directed spoken-word cabaret programs (for such artists as Dan Ruth and Kendra Cunningham). She Bangs, She Bangs seems almost to belong in the latter camp. Here, patter not only finds its way between songs but also embeds itself within some of them. The music, clearly, takes a back seat to the story.
The early songs, including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” (Mariah Carey, Walter Afanasieff) and “Van Nuys” (Bradley Dean), aid in instilling dread as the pre-storm tranquility threatens to give way to chaos. A couple of the later songs, “Over the Moon” (Jonathan Larson) and “Her Strut” (Bob Seger), aren’t as well integrated. They’re presented largely to show what was happening with Bangs’s professional life while all of the personal madness was raging. (Granted, her professional and personal lives do become fairly entangled, especially in the latter part of her narrative.)
Her singing voice here most often has a brash, coppery quality that is appropriate for songs of stress and strife—ones that don’t call for too much mellifluousness. The sound works best here on the country number “Fist City” (Loretta Lynn), where it comes off as forceful Texas twang. It’s one of the best songs in the show—I’d say the very best. On the one Golden Age show ballad in the set, “I Loved You Once in Silence” (Lerner & Loewe), her voice registers more on the silvery side. I would like to hear more of that sound from her. Maybe we’ll get it in a future show, one not so fraught with hard-edged drama.
Musical director and pianist Steven Ray Watkins is an ideal choice to accompany Bangs on this pop-rocky set of songs. Supporting him are bassist Dan Fabricatore and drummer Don Kelly. Watkins also sings a suave rendition of “She Bangs” (Desmond Child, Walter Afanasieff, Robi Draco Rosa, Glenn Monroig, Julia Sierra, Daniel López), which precedes Bangs’s entry onto the stage at the top of the show.
She Bangs, She Bangs: Marriage, Adultery, Texas & Jesus
Don’t Tell Mama – October 19, November 12, December 1