Fans of Jane Lynch who head to 54 Below, ready and eager to support the quirky comedienne, are in for a surprise. She is not merely as good as we think she will be; in what she terms her "maiden voyage" into the nitery circuit, she turns out to be in full control of the room and altogether excellent. "I've always thought cabaret is only an excuse for self-involved actors to hold an audience captive," she starts. "And I always thought that might be something I'd like to do."
Those audiences are likely to howl their way through Lynch's 50-minute act, which continues for two more nights through June 21. She is likely to be back, though; Lynch is a first-rate entertainer with a loyal following. Friendly, likable, and with a subversive edge that keeps you rapt lest you miss a razor-sharp quip or sardonic sideways glance, Lynch makes the venue her living room and serves as an eagerly gracious, but commanding, host.
She also sings, and sings well. Unsurprisingly, comedy songs are her métier. She starts with Jill Soloway's offbeat "If Wishes Were Rainbows," from the Lynch-penned play Oh, Sister, My Sister! This is followed by a raucously jazzy "Slappin' the Cakes on Me," by David Frishberg. Lynch then brings on sidekick Kate Flannery, who is best known for her role of Meredith Palmer on "The Office." They score immediately with a close-harmony duet version of Irving Berlin's "Mr. Monotony," and then ramp up the hilarity with — of all things — Bock and Harnick's "Far From the Home I Love." This poignant lament from Fiddler on the Roof is set to something like a samba beat, with Lynch and Flannery filling in the breaks with what appears to be a modified version of the twist. By the end of this, the singers — and some of the audience — seem in need of an oxygen tank.
Next up were a pair of songs from "A Mighty Wind," the 2003 folk singer mockumentary from Christopher Guest in which Lynch appeared. "The Skeletons of Quinto" and "Blood on the Coals" were parodies written for the film by the fictional group The Folksmen (Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer). They are rendered by Lynch in an exceedingly droll, weighty fashion. Lynch and Flannery continue with the Frank and Nancy Sinatra 1966 hit, "Somethin' Stupid" — noting in passing the incestuous nature of the chart-topping recording. (At the June 18 performance, this was sung by Lynch with guest Cheyenne Jackson. Also appearing that night was "Glee" co-star Matthew Morrison; neither performed June 19.) Flannery, by the way, is an impressive comic sidekick, somewhat reminiscent of Nancy Walker. Lynch is given strong support by musical director Todd Ellison, who guided her through her replacement stint in the 2012 revival of Annie, along with Maryanne McSweeney on bass and Sean McDaniel on drums.
Lynch and Flannery end the evening — save for obligatory encores — with a sweet, close-harmony version of "The Party's Over." First encore was "Go Ask Alice," from The Real Live Brady Bunch (in which Lynch appeared at the Village Gate, back in 1991). Capping off the brisk set is a knockout rendition of "Little Girls" from Annie. Those who saw Lynch in the revival remember how good she was in that otherwise lackluster production and can only hope that some musical comedy folk soon write her a role of her own.