Very few musical theater stars, let alone TV stars, make the transition to cabaret as comfortably as does Tom Wopat in his show at Arci's Place: The Still of the Night, running through Saturday, January 26. Wopat triumphs without a killer voice; he does it with killer charm instead. More than that, he's a natural actor, with the emphasis on natural. He knows who he is and how best to project that image. The show is casually presented, giving him ample opportunity to talk to audience members in a relaxed, conversational tone and to sing to them intimately.
Attemping to define Wopat's appeal is a tricky business. He's a crooner, but there is a lyric-driven edge to his singing. His voice is basically that of a gentle tenor, but on occasion it displays a deep growl that gives extra bite and dimension to his singing. And he's a rugged looking man with a surprisingly sensitive style. Only when he tries to put over songs that have "attitude" (like Dave Frishberg's "I'm Hip") does he falter, affecting a persona that is obviously not his own. While Wopat doesn't have much vocal range, a fact that is unfortunately demonstrated when he strains for the high note in the title song of his act, he acquits himself admirably in ballads that are within his limitations. For instance, he offers a delicately nuanced rendition of "Here, There, and Everywhere" and an aching version of "I Get Along Without You Very Well." (We are sure, however, that he could not get along so well without the support of pianist Ted Firth, bassist Ed Howard, and drummer Peter Grant.)
Unlike so many other celebrity cabaret artists, from Donna McKechnie to Tony Danza, Wopat chose not to build his act around his life and career; rather, his subject matter is love in its many manifestations. This is hardly a new topic for a cabaret show, but Wopat doesn't belabor it in his patter, which is smartly kept to a minimum and is consistently self-deprecating and funny. His sense of humor really comes across in "Makin' Whoopee!" (for example) because he doesn't perform the number in the big, broad style of Eddie Cantor but presents it instead as a sly ballad. He draws us into the story arc of the song and dryly humanizes what is, ultimately, a sardonic morality tale.
Though Wopat is occasionally sidetracked by inappropriate song selections such as "I Wouldn't Trade You" (which was written to be sung as a duet), he has made wise choices for the most part and sings the material with respect. He's at his very best in the Jimmy Webb numbers "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and "If These Walls Could Talk," offering full-hearted performances that suggest a real connection between the songwriter and the singer. In particular, Wopat's "Harsh Mistress" surges with a surprising and persuasive emotional intensity.
Catching a star like Wopat at Arci's Place has special perqs if you're on a celebrity watch. The night we were there (and it was not the star-studded opening), the audience included Susan Lucci, who starred with Wopat in Annie Get Your Gun when Bernadette Peters was on vacation. Also present was Lucci's longtime All My Children co-star, Ruth Warrick. To top it off, living legend Margaret Whiting was on hand as well.
This engagement coincides with the release of the new Angel Records CD Tom Wopat: The Still of the Night, and the recording has quite a few songs that are also in the act. Happily, most of the numbers that don't work at Arci's did not make it onto the disc. Still, Wopat is such a fine and subtle actor that, whatever flaws his show may exhibit, it would be a shame to miss him in live performance.