A correction was made to this review on Feb. 10, 2005.
There’s nothing shy about Melanie Rey. The singer-thesp-scribe has had a life, and she wants to tell you about it; never mind that her life isn’t all that compelling. She still wants to tell you about it — at length, in detail and set to music.
It takes cojones to construct a show about one’s self and market it to strangers without the guidance of a director, but Rey is nothing if not confident in the stageworthiness of her story and the aud appeal of her firecracker personality. Although she is mistaken on both counts, this hasn’t stopped her from performing “La Vida” in some half-dozen local venues since 1998, including the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Underdressed and overmiked, Rey comes on much too strong for this intimate West Soho theater yet still manages to look lost. Identifying herself as “a little Tex-Mex princess,” the Latina performer recalls her unstable childhood as the illegitimate but beloved child of a fancy-free mother who traipsed from state to state along the Mexican border with her 5-year-old daughter in tow. In “Dinastia,” the first of a dozen songs that repeat everything she’s just told us, Rey salutes by name individual members of the extended family of itinerant farm laborers who served as her surrogate parents in those days.
Skipping through time and landing on the defining moments of her life, thesp has a story to tell — and a song to back it up — about everything that matters to her, from her first sexual awakening through her last romantic heartbreak. The question is, do these things matter to us?
Going to college and traveling through Europe get the full, self-congratulatory song treatment because they were obviously a big deal for Rey. (“I’m the first university-educated, sorority-inducted, European-traveled member of my Tex-Mex family.”) But like her discovery of masturbation (which also rates a song), these personal triumphs aren’t as extraordinary among second- and third-generation immigrants as she seems to think they are.
Of course, even the most banal human experience can rate a song. (One of the most sublime song lyrics in the English language is a compilation of entirely familiar and “foolish” things.) But Rey is no poet, and her lyrics — although delivered with the manic energy of a cheerleader at halftime — are crushingly literal. “Mom, I was happy as a fetus,” one ditty goes. “Oh Mama. Let me back into your womb./Let me back in let me get back in your womb.”
Rob Arthur’s melodic music is high in energy, a good match for Rey’s exuberant lyrics of self-celebration and her full-throated performance style. Although a fully engaged onstage band provides the soloist with a buffer from her own vocalizing mishaps, it would take a traffic cop to direct her on how to get around the bulky couch and underutilized film screen that hog her space.