Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
Since bursting onto the New York musical theater scene in 1995 with his short-lived, but highly-praised Off-Broadway revue Songs For a New World, and then winning a 1999 Tony Award for Best Score for another short-lived show, Parade, pundits have been consistently predicting Jason Robert Brown's membership into the musical theater composer pantheon. While he hasn't quite made it there yet, this week at his concerts at 54 Below (September 11-15), Brown offered a preview of songs from upcoming musicals that could finally gain him entrée among the gods of Broadway musical composing.
In the middle of a show bordered by some of Brown's best stand alone songs and numbers from his Off-Broadway musical The Last 5 Years, the composer featured three pieces from the upcoming Honeymoon in Vegas (based on the 1992 film and slated for opening in Spring 2013), and two from The Bridges of Madison County (based on the 1992 best-selling Robert James Waller novel and 1995 Clint Eastwood/Meryl Streep film), which was being workshopped as of late last year. If the book and the rest of the score are anywhere close to as solid as the songs he delivered at 54 Below, Brown and Broadway could have two future hits on their hands.
While the character-driven, pop-style ballads written for Bridges-"Another Life" and "Wondering"-are lovely, the three songs Brown previewed from the Vegas score stole the 54 Below show. The bouncy "I Love Betsy" (sung by the Jack Singer character; Nicholas Cage in the film) has a very Peter Allen-ish vibe and Brown's typically clever and eye-winking lyrics ("I love Broadway once a year . . . I like opera-that's not true," etc.). Then guest vocalist Shoshana Bean (who has starred in Wicked and Hairspray) was wonderful on the Betsy character's song "Anywhere but Here." Bean (photo right) combines a terrific vocal range with superb acting skills, so it's easy to see why Brown loves having her put over his intricate, evocative and contemporary-sounding songs. The surprise of the opening night show was having actor Tony Danza (who will play wealthy gambler Tommy Korman-James Caan in the film version) singing what started as a heartfelt retro ballad that segues into a hilarious lyric about how his beloved ex-wife died of sun exposure.
Brown is not only a prolific songwriter, but backed by his Caucasian Rhythm Kings band (including guitarists Gary Sieger and Matt Hinkley and bass player Randy Landau) he rocks a concert/cabaret stage. When he's playing the piano and singing on his own compositions, you can hear touches of many of the great pop singer-songwriters of the 1970s and '80s-Elton John, Billy Joel, Peter Allen, Carol King, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Don McLean, and Barry Manilow-fused with musical theater influences of various eras. Brown's style on ballads can range from wistful pop/folk ("It All Fades Away') to heart-wrenchingly introspective ("Letting You Go') to borderline gospel ("All Things in Time"), yet he can turn on a dime to a classic blues sound on "Break Me Blues" or a mid-tempo pop song like "Caravan of Angels," including some jazzy piano riffing. He can even sing "F--- It" during his classic "Shiksa Goddess" (from The Last 5 Years) and say "Sorry, honey" to a young girl in the audience without missing a beat. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)