Give actor Molly Ringwald this much: She can carry a tune (mostly).
And she surely does not lack for courage, daring to try her hand at another art form in front of a paying audience.
So you had to marvel at her self-assurance Saturday night at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, where Ringwald attempted to sing some of the most profound repertoire ever written, most of it, alas, well beyond her interpretive grasp.
Sharing a stage with first-rate jazz instrumentalists and performing before a sold-out house, Ringwald devoted much of her show to selections from her new album, "Except Sometimes." That it was released by Concord Records, one of the leading labels in American jazz, suggested that the recording industry may be in worse shape than previously feared.
Speaking openly and pleasantly to her listeners, Ringwald appeared to enjoy the experience from the outset, reaching out to her audience with easygoing, unaffected soliloquies. There were no Hollywood pretensions here, no diva poses, no condescension toward the somewhat remote venue. To the contrary, Ringwald reminisced warmly about the time she spent in the Chicago area filming the John Hughes movies that put her on the pop-culture map in the 1980s, "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club."
But after delivering the first song, and the second, and the third, and the fourth, it was inescapably clear that Ringwald can produce the notes and say the words but hasn't begun to probe the meanings beneath them.
Take Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," a subtle but searing ballad of romantic loss. Its heartbreak derives from a lyric in which the protagonist heroically tries to convince herself that life goes on as always – except, of course, when it does not. A falling rain, for instance, recalls "the thrill of being sheltered in your arms." Nearly everything, in fact, suggests what has been lost, yet the anguished lover struggles in vain to put it all aside (the lyric was inspired by a poem from a grieving widow).
When an accomplished singer creates these moments, you can feel the pain beneath the surface. Ringwald, unfortunately, dispatched these words as if they had been dutifully memorized but never probed, one line unfolding mundanely like the next and the next. She may as well have been reciting her grocery list, for all the subtext she found in these words.
It takes a brave soul to perform "Don't Explain," another devastating song of denial, which Billie Holiday practically made into a personal anthem. The sorrow of a woman excusing her man's romantic transgressions weighs down every dark note of this song. But Ringwald gave the same bland reading to practically every line, utterly missing the tragedy of the piece. Pregnant pauses between phrases do not necessarily create drama. Squeaky high notes of dubious intonation do not help.
But it wasn't only the ballads that wrecked this performance. How is it possible to destroy the rhythmic lift of "I Feel Pretty," from "West Side Story"? Ringwald's relentlessly flat-footed approach, which landed heavily on downbeats, did the trick. Her version of "On the Street Where You Live," from "My Fair Lady," was so rhythmically square that she really should have been accompanied by a marching band.
Not everything here was a disaster, however. Ringwald captured a bit of zest and a hint of vocal style in "If I Were a Bell," from "Guys and Dolls," the brisk tempo carrying her along. And at least in the opening stanza of "Pick Yourself Up," she showed real exuberance (though it didn't last long).
It's difficult to say exactly what the point of this exercise was, since music was such a small part of it.
At one point, Ringwald departed from her charming stage patter to scold the audience for constantly taking pictures of her.
But why else would anyone be there?