Friday, July 6, 2012

cabaret review BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES, 54 Below, June 29

Brian d'Arcy James has appeared in numerous Broadway musicals and plays, including receiving two Tony nominations, as well as having roles on various tv shows including last season's Broadway themed series Smash.  However, after attending one of Brian's cabaret shows during his week run at the hot new cabaret spot 54 Below, it seems deep down he really wants to be an 80's pop star rocker.  Backed by an impressive 7 piece band and two back-up vocalists, Brian really rocked out and had his Broadway fan based audience in the palm of his hands throughout the 75 minute show -and he didn't even sing a single show tune.

Titled "Under the Influence," the theme of his show was all about the music of his teen years that he was influenced by.  In between songs he spoke about how these songs spoke to him and made him who he is today.  He also told many funny stories, including mentioning that he skipped a school basketball game, with his parents claiming there was a "family emergency" so he could attend his first stadium concert.  That Billy Joel concert with the combination of Joel and the size of the venue and the other pop songs of his youth that he heard either on 45's played in his basement or on cassette tapes he played in his car basically opened his eyes to the world.

Billy Joel obviously had the biggest influence on him and his delivery of three of Joel's songs “Worse Comes to Worst,” "Everybody Loves You" and a quiet, yet emotional “She’s Got a Way” were flawless.  But other bands and singers of that era also spoke to James including Steve Winwood, Squeeze, Genesis, James Taylor, Carly Simon and even Bobby Sherman.  He managed to make songs by those groups and singers his own with a sharp focus on the lyrics. 

The Winwood song "Take It As It Comes" opened the show and set the tone for the evening and I especially liked his take on the Genesis hit “That’s All" as well as Squeeze's "Tempted."   His crisp and clear delivery of the lyrics for these songs was especially effective in getting the message of the songs that spoke to him across. Broadway performer Julia Murney joined him for an inspired and extremely fun take on the Taylor/Simon hit "Mockingbird."  And even though Sherman's "Julie Do Ya Love Me"" is a 70's song that in my opinion should be left in the past, Brian had a fun time turning it into an audience sing along claiming "come on you know you want to join in" when he got to the chorus.

Brian rocks out at 54 Below
But Brian also noted that he was "down" with the songs of today and he gave a truly inspired performance of Adele's "I'll Be Waiting" which I thought was the highlight of the concert.  Another more recent artist, Gabe Dixon, was represented with the rocking "You and Only You." But he showed that rocking out wasn't the only thing he could pull off as his delivery of the solemn and soulfoul Kate McGarrigle "Saratoga Summer Song" that Brian saw McGarrigle's son Rufus Wainwright perform in concert was the perfect end to the evening.  

Jame's infectious enthusiasm and the power and drive of his voice propelled the material and with his personal interjections you really understood how this music made him who he is today.  The fact that the night we saw his show was also Brian's birthday added a nice personal touch to the evening that ended with everyone singing Happy Birthday to him as his wife and daugher joined him on the stage.   Another personal but very humorous moment in the show was when Brian told the story of how Matthew Sklar, the 19 year old assistant conductor for the Broadway musical Titanic at the time, told him one day how he had a dream about him the night before and how that dream was about Brian's theme song.  He said that over the past dozen years whenever he'd run into Sklar that he would always ask him to sing the theme song to him and how he decided to take the opportunity of his cabaret debut to actually let us hear it.  It was a truly inspired 30 second song that included Brian doing a very funny dance.  It was so inspired that when the audience wanted to hear it again, the band immediately jumped right in for an encore.

Dan Lipton led the power house band that featured impressive turns on guitar, saxophone and horns and Brian also sang a lovely and touching original song that he wrote with Lipton, "Don't Hold It Against Me." The back-up singers for his show were co-stars from Brian's former Broadway shows, Haven Burton who was in Shrek with Brian and Clarke Thorell who appeared in Titanic with him.  After the almost SRO audience and the joy and skill that James showed, it wouldn't surprise me to see Brian return to 54 Below later in the year with a new show.

And speaking of 54 Below, which just officially opened three weeks ago, the venue is the perfect place to see someone perform.  It is a large enough space to include a nice sized crowd but intimate enough to have a personal interaction with the performer with every seat in the room being less than 30 feet from the stage.  And even though there is a food and drink minimum on top of the ticket price, I found the food prices to be not too crazy and the portion sizes to be fine.   The quality of the food and the wait staff is on par with the high marks for the sound and lighting design in the space.   All of this combined in a glorious space makes 54 Below THE place to see a Broadway performer perform outside of an actual Broadway theatre.

Official Brian d'arcy James Site

Official 54Below Site

Rehearsal clip and interview for his concert at Below 54:

Brian talks about his Below 54 show:

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