Back for Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, cabaret duo Amy Jo Jackson and Brian Nash will explore the depths of the diva archetype with a brand-new show. Judy Garland, Fanny Brice, and Annie Lennox are just a few of the figures represented.

For Grand Dames: A Celebration of the Diva, Jackson will portray a plentitude of prima donnas spanning decades and genres.
Photo courtesy of Allison Stock Photography

By Caroline Dohack

There’s something supernatural about the diva. Oh, there’s the voice. And the hair, the makeup, the sequins, the extravagances, and maybe a scandal or two. But there’s more to it than that. And for two nights, cabaret fans will get to ruminate on just that.

As part of Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis (TWStL), New York City-based cabaret darlings Amy Jo Jackson and Brian Nash will perform a bespoke show they’re calling Grand Dames: A Celebration of the Diva on May 15 and 16 at the Curtain Call Lounge, located in the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Now in its ninth year, (TWStL) celebrates the art and influence of a great American writer.

This will be Jackson and Nash’s second visit to St. Louis. Last year the duo performed a show called The Brass Menagerie, which saw cabaret singer Jackson embody the women of Tennessee Williams—from Blanche DuBois to Serafina De La Rose to Maggie the Cat—through song and stagecraft while music director Nash raked the keys. Jackson won the 2022 Bistro Award for this repertoire.

Jackson says Grand Dames is a riff off another piece of TWStL programming scheduled for later this year, Life Upon the Wicked Stage, a vaudeville-inspired showcase built around three of Williams’ one-act plays. The tantalizing concept of a “wicked stage” got them thinking about theater’s larger-than-life figures. Who better to bring to life than the diva?

Besides, it’s not like the diva would let anyone else step into the spotlight.

For Grand Dames, Jackson will portray a plentitude of prima donnas spanning decades and genres. Jackson says the set list is still in development, but Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Norma Desmond, Stevie Nicks, Fanny Brice, and—Jackon’s personal favorite—Annie Lennox are a few of the larger-than-life presences who will make themselves known. 

So what exactly makes a diva? For Jackson, it’s something that transcends fame and fortune.  

“You have Taylor Swift, who is definitely a musical icon. She’s one of the most famous people in the world, if not the most famous. I’m not sure I would call her a diva,” Jackson says. “There’s something about her persona and the way she sings that is very approachable.”

No, there’s something more mysterious about the diva. 

“Beyoncé hasn’t done press in a decade. Beyoncé drops an album in the middle of the night that no one knows is coming. Beyoncé does what she wants,” Jackson says. “That is a diva. There’s something untouchable. It’s beyond charisma, beyond talent.” 

Jackson, meanwhile, revels in the diva role. Standing nearly six feet tall and commanding a rich mezzo range helps. So does an appreciation for glitter. And cabaret seems to be a natural outlet to embrace this persona. 

Part of it is the creative freedom.

“Often with commercial theater/show business/film and TV industry, you’re having to fit someone else’s ideas, and that doesn’t always line up with doing something that is artistically fulfilling. You’re a body standing in a particular spot,” Jackson says. “With cabaret, it’s ‘What do I want to say? What am I interested in saying?’” 

Photo courtesy of Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

In smaller, more intimate spaces like the Curtain Call Lounge, the audience takes a more active role in listening to those things being said than they might in bigger venues.

“There’s a very direct line from you—the artist—and the audience,” Jackson says. “There’s nothing in between you except maybe the song. There’s no illusion of a fourth wall, there’s no pretending we’re in another space. It’s all about connection. I’m making eye contact with you and talking directly to you.”

And in this way, cabaret is the perfect vessel for the diva to come back down to earth and share just a bit of her star power. 

“Being a diva may be in part about largesse, but that can be largesse of emotion, largesse of vocals, largesse of over sharing personal details from the stage,” Jackson says. “Judy Garland would sit on the edge of the stage and sing directly to her fans. They didn’t know her personally and they would never fully understand her, but they were connected to her.” 

Feature image courtesy of Allison Stock Photography.

For hundreds more events, visit Missouri Life’s Event Calendar.