Hurricane Rita may have delayed Opening Night of the Montgomery County Performing Arts Society season, but all that was forgotten when Hurricane Janet breezed on to Conroe’s Crighton Theatre stage last Saturday in the person of talented singer/actress, Janet Carroll. For those who might not recognize the name of this perennial entertainer, the face would be familiar from her over 200 roles on TV (“Murphy Brown,” “Melrose Place,” “Married With Children”), and feature films opposite stars like Brad Pitt (“Glory Days”) and Tom Cruise, (she played his mom in “Risky Business”). Most recently, on Broadway, she originated the role of Aunt March in the new musical, “Little Women.” But on this occasion it was Janet Carroll the cabaret singer, backed by her very talented jazz quartet. (Tardo Hammer on piano, Erin Wright on bass, Billy Paul on drums, and Jimmy Rich on reeds & flute).
The show actually opened with a well-organized blitz of assorted film clips from the above-mentioned shows, and many, many more. Then the attractive and perky star emerged in a fringed, crimson “flapper” mini-dress, with delicate, thin diamond shoulder straps, and announced her intention to “celebrate the American Songbook and the great ladies of song.” She would not disappoint, but there was a brief scare at the outset. Following a saucy “Bill Bailey” that was full of fun, and an “After You’ve Gone” in the red-hot mama style, I whispered to my guest, “I don’t think that microphone is working.” Carroll sat coolly on a stool to deliver Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” in a gentle musical whisper that did not carry well. Ever the pro, and sensing there was a problem, Miss Carroll addressed the audience with “Can you hear me?” The chorus of “No’s” was quickly rewarded with corrected audio. Then it was on to a “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby,” with the star’s smooth voice showing newfound power. There was a jazzy “You, You’re Driving Me Crazy,” and a bluesy and wide-ranging look at heartbreak with a delicate “Lover Man” that proved sometimes “less is more.” The musicians solos were also outstanding, including the drum segment in a “Back Home Again in Indiana” that offered a snappy change of pace. Carroll gave a powerful and satin-voiced tribute to Ray Charles with “Georgia,” and followed with rhythmic Latin flair in “What is This Thing Called Love?” Another video clip from the TV special, “This Joint is Jumping,” featured Janet singing a passionate “Amazing Grace” with actor Jack Lemmon at the keyboard. Then, back to live performance, Carroll reached new heights of vocal excitement, and showed fluency in French, while singing “La Vie En Rose.”
Act II began with clips from Carroll’s riotous series of amusing commercials for Holiday Inn, and a sample of her role as chanteuse, Doris Dial, on “Murphy Brown.” As Doris sings a sultry and plaintive, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” Miss Carroll returns to thrillingly conclude the number live, now dressed in an elegant black gown with sparkling sequined jacket. For still more elegance there was the strength and visual poetry of her “Skylark,” and the solid jazz of Johnny Mercer’s “I Thought About You.” A smoky start to “Stormy Weather” was interrupted by some unnecessary nonsense on the drums. Then there was an amazing tour-de-force from saxophonist, Jimmy Rich, as he played (with opposing hands) both tenor and alto saxophones simultaneously, as a lead-in to Carroll’s soaring “Kansas City.” The singer gave so generously in that number that it may have left her initially a bit short of breath for the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that followed, but by song’s end, she had it nailed.
The show closed with a fine set of patriotic songs to honor the veterans in the audience, and then a real New Orleans style “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I had the pleasure of meeting the star after the show to chat about some of our mutual friends in New York. Not surprisingly, she was just as charming off-stage as on. I just bet when those saints go marching in, Janet Carroll will be helping to lead the parade.