Painting the Town Rocha: Mad Men meet the Ladies @ Galapagos

Jenny Rocha rides into view. Photo by Melody Mudd

Jenny Rocha and her Painted Ladies have developed a following in this town since their debut in 2006.  So has trumpeter, singer and bandleader Brian Newman.  The two have each featured for some time now as performers in the intermittent Floating Kabarette productions of the Galapagos Art Space in DUMBO, and both, in at least a part of their individual oeuvres, exhibit an interest in reclaiming and revitalizing the production values and styles of a bygone era of swanky supper clubs and New York nightlife.

So when the two teamed up at Galapagos on May 20, for their first ever shared evening of song and dance, you might have been forgiven for expecting a collaboration. As it turned out, Rocha’s production alternated segments like half-innings in a gender-specific ball game; the visiting boys of Newman’s jazz trio batting first.

Brian Newman. photo by Mark Pierson

Newman proved a genial host, except when beset by a recurring short in the microphone cord as he fondled his boxy 50’s style stand mic. Ahead of his polished side men — Paul Francis on drums and Alex Smith on electronic keyboard — he took the “pit,” what would normally serve as the audience left “pod” closest to the stage in Galapagos’ pool-bridging orchestra level seating scheme.  Nattily tailored in a single-breasted dark suit complete with pocket square, a black pinstriped shirt with a white pointed collar and a white silk tie – Saville Row meets Bugsy Malone — Newman welcomed the audience before turning his warm baritone, fiery trumpet and band mates loose on Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” He then introduced his hosts:

The red velour curtain parted on the home girls half of the inning to introduce all five black bra attired Painted Ladies astride white stage boxes from which they launched into a rhythm dance to recorded music by the Black Eyed Peas. Four minutes later, the jazz trio picked up to cover the set and costume changes before the Painted Ladies next number, playing a version of Marks & Simons’ popular standard “All of Me,” followed by the trio’s take on Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” The evening’s pattern had been established.

Jenny Rocha (center) and her Painted Ladies photo by Melody Mudd

Rocha’s pieces, kitschy, sometimes witty amalgamations of modern and jazz dance styles in vaudeville frames with burlesque accents, lean heavily on their props as well as on their often creative, always well executed costumes. In her own dancing she welds a fierce attack to a sexy sensibility and a sense of humor. Her company: Shevaun Smythe Hiler, Jillian Hollis, Molly Merkler, and Jessy Smith, while obviously well-trained and accomplished, only rarely exhibit the same commitment and pizzaz.

This does not hold true for the rousing tap trio in which Hollis and Smith match the choreographer flap for heel, all while keeping their pastie-crowned boobs from flopping out from beneath cropped faux fur vests until the proper moment for the big titillation.  The choreography often builds to such peeks <sic> and distributes 28 flavors of fan kicks and pelvic thrusts among its compositionally classic canons and counterpoints.

photo by Dmitri Wildfong Nishman

For me, this happy hoofer pas de trois proved the movement highlight of the evening, save for the offhanded instant in which Rachel Prescott, a member of the wait staff, found herself momentarily suspended in action and spotlight, her back to us, in front of the red velour and the jazz trio’s rendition of Porter’s “In the Still of the Night.”  For all the Karole Armitage like intensity and artisanal stage craftiness of Rocha’s creations, this haphazard moment of vulnerability and human indecision sang out as truly arresting.

Meanwhile, back at the sangspiel, Newman and his merry band kept up their half of the bargain, toodling through samples of the Great American Song Book with a quick sidetrip through a Jobim Bossa Nova.  Newman’s approach to his music defies easy categorization: In his singing he channels a little Tony Bennett, a little more Mel Torme, a little less Harry Connick, Jr.  He attacks his trumpet solos with be-bop like flourishes and flying fingers.

Rocha likes to fly, too. One fondly hopes that these Painted Ladies and mad tailored men will someday find <singing> “a little old place where we can get together. Love shack, baby.”

More of DJ McDonald’s commentary can be found at City of Glass.

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