By Stephen Hanks
In the role of Frank Houston on NBC’s “Smash,” Brian d’Arcy James seems to wear a perpetual frown as he tries to salvage his TV marriage after his wife’s (Debra Messing) brief affair. So it was uplifting to observe James smiling with impunity throughout the first night of his debut solo concert show—“Under the Influence”—at the spanking new and glorious 54 Below. (James is performing the show nightly until June 30.)
The Broadway, television, and film acting veteran admitted he was pumped to finally perform a show structured around the 1980s pop songs he loves and his adrenalin rush was palpable. The two-time Tony Award-nominee (for Sweet Smell of Success and Shrek) made a seemingly effortless transition from the Broadway stage to a nightclub venue, proving to be an energetic, engaging, enthusiastic, and effervescent concert performer with on-stage charisma and self-deprecation to spare. “This evening is great for me,” he quipped early in the set, “because like I did in high school I can still pretend that I’m cool.”
Wearing a spiffy light gray suit over a black sweater, looking even younger than he does on TV, and fronting a seven-piece band led by Musical Director and pianist Dan Lipton, James opened with Steve Winwood’s upbeat pop rocker “Take It As It Comes.” But his true homage to one of his musical heroes came a couple of songs later with a three-song Billy Joel section, including excellent renditions of the ballad “She’s Got a Way,” and the up-tempo “Everybody Loves You Now,” the latter of which includes lyrics that seemed ideal for the occasion. “Baby all the lights are turned on you/Now you're in the center of the stage/Everything revolves on what you do/Ah, you are in your prime; you've come of age/And you can always have your way somehow/But everybody loves you now.” By this point in the show it was clear everyone in the packed 54 Below was loving Brian d’Arcy James.
The former Next to Normal star kept the momentum moving with Squeeze’s 1981 hit “Tempted,” a terrific vocal that allowed James to combine his Broadway and pop singing styles. He broke from the theme mid-set with two fine original songs, the jazzy “Good Ground,” and a lovely ballad dedicated to his sister Anne James Noonan, “Don’t Hold it Against Me.” James then told a story that while doing Shrek some members of the cast turned him on to The Gabe Dixon Band and he segued into Dixon's very Billy Joel-ish sounding “All Will Be Well.”
One of the show's highlights was a surprise duet with Lauren Kinhan (of the popular singing groups New York Voices and JaLaLa) on Inez and Charlie Fox’s “Mockingbird,” channeling the 1974 Carly Simon/James Taylor hit version (with a terrific sax solo by Paul Vercesi). After the show, Kinhan admitted they performed the song with practically no rehearsal. James then really went retro, pulling one out of an old babysitter’s box of 45s—the 1970 Bobby Sherman hit “Julie, Do You Love Me,” seducing the entire audience into singing the familiar choruses. “The night is now complete,” James laughed. “I’ve sung a Bobby Sherman song.”
But the night wasn’t really complete until James honored Phil Collins and Genesis, another of his ‘80s musical heroes. Brian, the entire band, and backup singers Clarke Thorell and Haven Burton, absolutely rocked a terrific arrangement of “That’s All.” After this solid, tight, and thoroughly entertaining debut, hopefully that won’t be all for the multi-talented Mr. James.
Brian d'Arcy James continues his run of "Under the Influence" at 54 Below on June 28, 29 and 30 at 8PM. Cover charge: $30-$40. Food and beverage minimum $25. 54 Below is at 254 West 54th Street. Tickets and information at www.54Below.com