Art Spotlight: A sumptuous late bloomer

Rhoda Reighard was too brassy for her synagogue, but with her son's help, she's finally calling the tune

Paris, with its flowery skirts, strappy heels and sultry language, is so not Minneapolis. But for a few moments, in a second-floor East Calhoun apartment building, Rhoda Reighard can make one believe that life in Minneapolis is sumptuous.

In truth, it's Reighard's voice that's sumptuous. While Reighard plays the piano, her voice lifts and bends the French love ballad lyrics, pulling her audience out of humid south Minneapolis and into the dimly lit cabaret of an imagined Paris.

Then, she abruptly stops and deadpans the foolish, lovesick lyrics.

You see, it's hard for a single mother of two grown children, now a grandmother, to sing these ballads without throwing in a grain of salt.

"I kind of make silly comments about the tunes I do because they are very romantic and people are being left and they're lamenting and suffering. I can't really sing those songs… so I make remarks," Reighard.

In Reighard's show, interlaced with the love songs, old movie tunes and a few numbers written by her son, she talks about her life, love and how times have changed.

"When I was growing up, there were girls who wore very high heels, jeans and little kerchiefs that tied around their chin. We knew that those were the girls who were having sex," said Reighard. "When they would sashay down the block in front of our building, my sisters and I would burst into giggles. Those were the bad girls when I was growing up."

The memories come easily, since she now lives two blocks away from her childhood home. Noting how the neighborhood has changed, from blocks of families to singles, Reighard points to at least one tangible leftover from her youth. Sneaking behind her old building, she can find her initials on the building's wall -- she carved out by with her siblings in the early 1950s.

Reighard's singing started around then, at age 10, but it's only now that she is comfortable calling herself a musician.

"I started singing when I was 10, and I'll never forget singing in the synagogue. I did that a lot, and I didn't get a lot of encouragement. People kept on saying to me, 'you are so dramatic, just so dramatic.' They weren't positive, but I just went forward anyway," she said.

After high school, Reighard worked at local theatres and then spent 10 years acting in Chicago. "I wasn't the 5-foot-6 ingnue with a 2-inch waist and I wasn't blond, so I played character roles," said Reighard. "I was always playing someone's mother, 20 or 30 years older than I was."

Tired from living with little money and raising two kids as a single mom in Chicago, she moved back to Minneapolis to get a bachelor's degree and a day job.

But it was her son Pablo -- a peripatetic local folk guitarist, vocalist, cabaret performer and organizer --who pushed Reighard back to the theatre eleven years ago. "My son convinced me to go to Berklee College of Music. And it's the best thing I ever did for myself," said Reighard.

Music school has given Reighard more confidence and control over her performance, since she is now able to arrange and direct the music. "I sang for many years, I was a performer, I didn't know much about the music. I wanted to learn things I didn't know, and do things that I didn't know how to do. Now I do! And I want to know more," said Reighard.

Info >"Lamentable You: A One-Woman Show by Chanteuse Rhoda Reighard" with accordionist Mark Stillman, violinist Kelsey Long and pianist Drew Jansen plays Thursdays, Sept. 5, 12, 19 and 26, 7 p.m., Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St. Tickets are $12; call 825-8949 for reservations.