In every trip I make to a cabaret performance, I pay particular attention to the personal connection the performer wants to make with his or her audience. It’s the classic actor question: Ok, you’ve been given a stage, and an audience full of people here to watch you do whatever you want…and, go!
For Brian D’Arcy James, the route he chose last Friday night was to keep things loose, and I’d say it was the right one for him. Entering the stage to the dancing notes of Jason Robert Brown’s “She Cries” (ably accompanied throughout by Dan Lipton), Mr. James looked like he was using the number to find his bearings. His buttery “tenotone” voice was there*, though he appeared to be deliberately going for a more relaxed, un-“act-y” read of the song. It’s a fine choice for performance, but a tough song for which to choose that route.
Once the evening proper got underway, things made a lot more sense, with a nice mix of pop songs and contemporary theatre selections. During his introductions, James liked to talk about his love for pop music, the role it played in his journey to the stage, and the bridge connecting those songs to Broadway. He loves the fact that there’s more and more pop on Broadway. Your mileage may vary (I think there’s room for it, too), but most important was his earnestness and enthusiasm for his material.
He warned us early that there’d be a lot of Billy Joel, and he wasn’t kidding, since he ended up doing three or four songs by Joel. It was a good choice, though, because it took well to his voice and helped him find his groove, which got the audience right there with him, too. Of the Joel oeuvre, his “She’s Got a Way” particularly stood out, but I’m also a sucker for that song.
From the pop catalog, some of the other highlights included a sensitive rendition of “When October Goes” and a soulful “Tempted” (the stage perfectly set for it by his enthusiastic delivery of the band name “Squeeze!”). He and Lipton also co-wrote a song called “Pocotello”, which I also found quite lovely, and interesting for mixing some modern chromatics into an otherwise straightforward pop song structure.
From his theatrical resumé, we also got some songs from the likes of Floyd Collins (“How Glory Goes”, which wins me over in the intro alone), Next to Normal (“A Light in the Dark”, a reinforcement to his reputation as the definitive Dan), and Sweet Smell of Success, his breakthrough show (reveling in the chance to finally sing the gorgeous “I Cannot Hear the City”, which belongs to another character in the show).
As with the pop stuff, he kept things more vocally focused, being on a stand mic and all, but these songs are so dramatic that they did bring out bits of the great actor in James. His pre-encore closer was Shrek’s “Who I’d Be/In Your Eyes”, which made for a pretty climactic, soaringly sung end.
Throughout the evening, James did a fair amount of talking, joking, and story-telling. I got the impression of a pretty smart guy with a ton of reserve energy who’s a straight-up nerd about the theatre world, albeit a very charming, handsome, barrel-chested one. Stars, they’re just like us!
He also found time, while talking about Tom Kitt and Brian Yorke’s If/Then, to get in the requisite “Adele Dazeem” joke, which officially became a meta-joke that night with the even bigger laughs at his follow-up: “Such a cheap joke, but I had to…but WHAT WAS HE THINKING?” RIP, Adele Dazeem jokes…we had a fun week with you.
If you ever get the chance to see Brian D’Arcy James in a setting like this, go in expecting something loose and casual, and I think you’ll have a good time. Part of the fun of the Spotlight series is discovering HOW each performer wants to use the venue, and so far, I’ve been impressed with the variety.
Next up is Megan Hilty on May 2, and if you’re curious how I feel about that, I’ll happily remind you.
note from above: * – I wouldn’t exactly call James a “baritenor”, since his range is so comfortably high and in the tenor mode, and that moniker makes me think “baritone with high notes”. Instead, I regard his voice as an unusually muscular, robust tenor.