By Stephen Mosher, Broadway World
That’s what they say, isn’t it? It’s all in the timing? Well, Hannah Jane Peterson could not have timed her latest show in the Birdland Theater more perfectly. Her new act coinciding with the recent release of the children’s picture book A IS FOR AUDRA (which probably populates more childless homes, if one gives the matter some serious thought), Ms. Peterson found a valuable tool in the slim volume and an inspired idea for a musical cabaret. THE LEADING LADIES OF BROADWAY (in some advertising trimmed to just LEADING LADIES) is Hannah Jane Peterson’s living, breathing, three-dimensional representation of the book A Is For Audra, and it is one of the most exciting nights of cabaret a music lover or musical theater aficionado is going to find on the boards.
The familiar sound of the Sesame Street theme song plays as a confident and friendly Hannah Jane Peterson takes to the stage in her elegantly simple attire, holding a copy of A Is For Audra, which she quickly makes clear will provide the road map for the evening’s entertainment. Without personal patter, Ms. Peterson reads the book, just like our kindergarten teacher would do for us, though it is doubtful anyone ever had so chic a teacher in their youth. Each stanza read, every drawing displayed, Ms. Peterson’s voice, in song would be raised. It was brilliant from the start. Right out of the gate the young woman captured everyone’s attention, filling the full house with expressions of shock and surprise as patrons of the famed jazz club were exposed to one of the most versatile and thrilling talents to be seen on this or any stage in an incredibly long time. Talents like those exhibited by Hannah Jane Peterson do not come along every day, and whether it is talent with which she was born or talent that has been nurtured through stalwart study, the world needs to be prepared for the tidal wave that is about to hit. Full disclosure: this writer does not know Hannah Jane Peterson, has never met her and has no personal connection with her. This is a completely impartial review of a talent that is brand new to the Mosher consciousness, as of the third night of the 2019 Cabaret Convention, and even that could prepare nobody for what a thunderstruck and elated audience saw on Tuesday night.
Like the daring young man on the flying trapeze, Ms. Peterson worked her way through the Divas of Broadway with the greatest of ease, transitioning from the most beautiful (and beautifully trained) soprano voice (while paying tribute to Julie Andrews) to a crystal clear and inoffensive brass belt during her Mama Rose segment. Sans pretention or discomfort Ms. Peterson threw herself into characters she won’t be playing for years (and she WILL play them, be told) – characters like Miss Hannigan and The Witch (you know which witch). From Carrie Pipperidge to Sally Bowles, the audience sat, mesmerized, as, like Venus on the Half Shell, Hannah Jane Peterson emerged to take her place in the performing arts community of Manhattan. Seemingly capable of absolutely anything, Ms. Peterson slips lithely in and out of character with no other dialogue than that laid out for her between the covers of the book guiding the evening. For one solid hour, Peterson sings from A to Z, and though it sounds like an impossible task, the key to the brevity of the evening is that many of the numbers are truncated, making the show a kind of sample platter of the most delicious women and delectable songs from the American Musical Theater – and while it can be a bit of a letdown when your favorite Patti LuPone song is performed without the gorgeous bridge for which you are still waiting to hear HJP sing, two days later, in the final analysis, it doesn’t matter because there is proof positive that one day Ms. Peterson will play the titular character who sang that song. Hannah Jane and her musical director Jon Weber have created intelligent, enjoyable and economic versions of each song, some delivering the tune’s full journey, others cleverly mashed up with other melodies, and some brilliantly distilled to one or two lines (the Elaine Stritchtribute scored peals of laughter from the crowd) and together they have made expertly surprising choices on which songs should be sung, never opting for the obvious choice for the diva in question. Ms. Peterson’s obvious youth belies her skills, acting and singing, to the point that certain members of the audience were shocked and stunned by what was happening before their very eyes, as a master storyteller whispered songs that are usually anthem-sung, judiciously chose moments when not to sing, and traversed stylistic mountains and ravines to provide a sumptuous feast of musical theater majesty, where lie a surprise at every intersection.
Particular highlights in the musical revue created by Peterson and co. included a whispering rhapsody of a surprising “My Ship” and a sweetly sympathetic “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again” between Peterson and the unparalleled Sean Harkness, singing while accompanying on guitar. Surprise musical guests from the audience featured Kristy Cates, who joined Hannah Jane for one of the songs performed from start to finish, a rousing and remarkable “What Is This Feeling?” and, for a show-stopping number from Annie, a little girl who wasn’t about to have her freckles stepped on or her curls straightened. With Peterson’s vision, Lauren Coco Cohn’s direction and Jon Weber‘s musical direction, not one moment of THE LEADING LADIES OF BROADWAY was mistakenly planned, not one note out of place; in short, there is no critique to be made of this show, only a definite need for an encore.
Timing is everything, and Hannah Jane Peterson is out to prove that she is the future of musical theater and of cabaret, and she is doing it in real-time. Make no mistake about it.