The first inkling that Sherie Rene Scott's show at 54 Below might not be a night of conventional cabaret comes when a waitress stops by our table, which stretches from the back of the room to the narrow stage, and says matter-of-factly, before the lights dim: "She's going to walk out on this table as part of the show. So I'm going to clear your plates away as best I can. Just be prepared."
Some 90 minutes later, as Scott's astonishing performance in Piece of Meat comes to an end, the fact that she has briefly towered over us -- twirling a gold disco ball -- is the least of it.
One of Broadway's most electrifying performers, Scott has wowed audiences with a Tony-nominated turn in 2010's Everyday Rapture, an iconic role in Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years, plus shows like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Tommy, Aida, The Little Mermaid, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, and others. But Piece of Meat, which debuted at the club last October and is now back for an encore summer run through June 29, represents a startling departure.
In a production lavishly praised by critics, Scott's hyper-kinetic performance and spot-on renditions of modern pop songs help her tell a thoroughly unexpected story: Midway through her life as a devoted vegetarian, she suddenly succumbs to an insatiable hunger for beef. Great big juicy slabs of it. We're talking meat-life crisis.
Overnight, Scott's body becomes a battleground between guilt and pleasure, between a hunger for spiritual purity and a celebration of animal lust. "Piece of Meat -- powered by taut monologues and classic songs by Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and Mark Knopfler, to name a few -- soon expands to touch on the other big choices we make in this life, with riffs on love, loss and mortality. Brilliantly conceived and performed, it is a must-see.
But that's only part of what makes the show so special -- and so wonderfully unsettling. For all its hip references, contemporary soundtrack and imaginary exchanges between Scott, McCartney and the Dalai Lama (don't ask), Piece of Meat is a throwback to cabaret's earliest days -- a show that is equal parts musical performance, confessional drama and good old-fashioned guts.
Good luck finding this combination elsewhere. The majority of cabaret shows today are conceived as high-end entertainment, a creative showcase for singers blending standards, newer songs and a novelty tune or two within an over-arching theme. Scott's one-woman show, by contrast, wastes no time in shattering that mold.
Bounding on stage, she opens with "Five Years Time" by Noah and the Whales, a chipper, upbeat song, then dives into a brooding, jazz-inflected take on Mitchell's "All I Want." Launching into her autobiographical tale, she uncorks a stream of dramatic vignettes laced with comic absurdity, peeling away the layers of her own life. It's an imaginative tour de force that reminds you of cabaret's origins in provocative, sometimes confrontational storytelling.
Scott has covered this territory before, with Everyday Rapture's alternately zany and poignant stories about growing up in a Mennonite Kansas town. But for all the real-life overtones, she played a character that was perfected for a musical. In Piece of Meat Scott finds herself on riskier turf, telling offbeat stories about busted love and a restless search for higher moral ground. At times, it feels more like a high-wire act than a nightclub gig.When she first began conceiving the production, Scott told a Broadway World interviewer, the idea of talking about her vegetarian Sturm und Drang was "too personal."
It was just so confusing and earth-shattering to me -- this insatiable hunger for meat that suddenly happened and all the ramifications I felt that it would have in my life -- that I felt like I couldn't possibly talk about it in front of others. Which meant that I should.
Luckily for us, she heeded that advice. Like the disco ball she twirls, Scott's story shimmers with patterns and light: An accomplished singer and actress, she begins her tale comically, gets darker, detours into the surreal and downshifts into heartbreak, all in a matter of minutes. It is a tribute to her that, by the time she tells the story of diving underwater with a Rastafarian friend and encountering a giant Grouper, the audience is spellbound.
At one point, Scott cracks that she has spent a lifetime "living on tic tacs and applause." But the deeper she digs into the metaphysics of meat and her growing hunger for it, the more she comprehends. In the end, Scott says, "Everything in life comes down to three things: What do I hang on to, what do I let go of, and when?"
Piece of Meat may be a one-woman show, but it is a bona fide team effort: Scott is accompanied on piano and ukulele by her talented musical director, Todd Almond (with whom she duets memorably on Annie Lennox's "Honestly") plus Alana Dawes on Bass, and Levy Lorenzo on percussion. The show is ably directed by Lear DeBessonet and choreographed by Michele Lynch.
Piece of Meat is playing at 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street in Manhattan, through June 29th.