Continuing its tradition of showcasing known and lesser known Broadway and West End talent in the Barbara Cook’s Spotlight cabaret series, the Kennedy Center played host to Adam Pascal on a Washington, DC spring evening.
Pascal, perhaps best known for originating the role of tortured musician Roger in the hugely popular Rent – a role he later reprised in London, on tour, and on film – is certainly no stranger to the musical theatre scene. Although it’s nearly impossible not to associate Pascal’s gritty yet rangy voice with pop-rock musicals (Aida and more recently, Memphis) he’s proved that he also has the chops to take on more traditional fare.
Achieving notice in a Broadway revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret as the mysterious Emcee and currently delighting audiences with his take on the slimy Billy Flynn in the long-running Broadway hit Chicago, he’s nothing if not a versatile, commanding performer.
Given this history, it should come as no to surprise that Pascal’s cabaret act fuses his pop-rock side with his more traditional musical theatre side. Nearly half of his set list comprised his own original music (featured on three CD releases that could largely be labeled alternative rock), but for good measure he also threw in some beloved showtunes. Showtunes, that is, with a unique twist.
If one has not heard an acoustic version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” (from Cats, which Pascal mentions is the “worst musical ever”) it’s an experience. A powerhouse ‘Betty Buckley-like’ rendition it is not. Mr. Pascal, an accomplished guitar player, gave this overdone song a new vibe, stripped it down, and focused more on the lyrics. Throughout the course of the evening, he gave the same treatment to Stephen Sondheim’s ethereal “Johanna” (from Sweeney Todd), the longing “Not a Day Goes By” (from Merrily We Roll Along) and the romantic “Maria” (written with Leonard Bernstein for West Side Story) as well as Kander and Ebb’s desperation-filled “I Don’t Care Much” (from Cabaret).
Showcasing major song arrangement chops, Pascal played with the melodies, tempos and more all while playing tribute to some of these classics of the American stage and at times mashing them up with his original music and other well-known pop fare. When’s the last time you heard a Kander and Ebb song – “I Don’t Care Much” – mashed up with Elton John’s “Rocket Man?” It shouldn’t work yet it does – and is strangely effective at that.
Through his original music and stories about his past, audience members also gained more insight into this charming and exceedingly talented man with a penchant for sardonic humor. This, when combined with his exquisite music, made for a more than delightful evening of songs and stories.
For instance, he said that he’s often confused with his former Rent co-star Anthony Rapp. Once, he relays, he got a voiceover job for a documentary about hippos on the Discovery channel only to later find out that they really wanted Rapp for the job but were confused about who was who. He was also a big Howard Stern fan in the 1990s (although that didn’t turn out so well when he attended a Stern movie premiere) and once played a show in Florida where the retired population was so dismayed that he did not feature showtunes that he was pretty much forced to leave the stage early.
The original music – with “Beautiful Song” (a song Pascal wrote for his child over a decade ago) and “Love Will Always Come Back,” written by his musical director/co-writer/pianist Larry Edoff being highlights – exposed the artist’s more analytic, contemplative and sensitive side. Together with band members Edoff and drummer Gary Selligson, he shared his impressive rock music skills. We all experienced something a little different than standard cabaret fare that night.
Yes, he did finish the evening with the song with which most people associate him. Jonathan Larson’s “Glory” (from Rent) never sounded so good. Yet, here Pascal proves he’s more than just the guy who gave voice to that particular song – however good it is (and it is). That’s a good thing.
This concert was a one night only event at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on May 10, 2013.