There is no shortage of great looking young guys in cabaret right now. Currently engaged in the battle of bone structures, you've got musical theater/TV star John Barrowman at Arci's Place and musical theater/cabaret star David Campbell at The Café Carlyle. Both are heart-stoppers and both have built solid reputations, but that's where the similarities end.
David Campbell: Better Than Ever
Now 28, the seasoned performer David Campbell has returned to New York from his native Australia after an absence of nearly two years. During his time away, he starred in (among other things) a rock musical that toured his homeland. In his new cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, Campbell sings one song from that show: "Cry" (Churchill/Kohlman), an American pop ballad of the 1950s that he invests with genuine emotion.
Looking at this entire act, which runs the gamut from Rodgers & Hart to Bobby Darin, it becomes clear that the key to Campbell's ever-increasing success as a cabaret artist is his attention to lyrics. The reason he can come back to the U.S. after being away so long and still command a whopping $75.00 cover charge at the Café Carlyle (be grateful, at least, that there's no minimum!) is that he respects the lyrics of each song he sings, regardless of its genre. His good looks and charm are ever present, but Campbell takes you well past the superficial with his lived-in tenor voice and serious acting chops.
He calls his show Back from Oz, and he addresses his wanderings in the opening number, "Gypsy in My Soul" (Jaffe/Boland). Then he sings Stephen Sondheim's "Old Friends" (from Merrily We Roll Along) as a way of re-bonding with his faithful American followers. Under the gifted musical direction of pianist Christopher Denny, this is a smart, well-crafted show that spins off in a lot of directions and, yet, doesn't lack cohesion because it's held together by the sheer force of Campbell's talent and personality. There's no better example of how completely he held the audience in sway than to note that, despite the failure of the Café Carlyle to lower the house lights during the show, there was total silence during Campbell's ballads. To his credit, he didn't need theatrical lighting; this electric entertainer provided all necessary shadings of light and dark in his performance.
One of the many musical roads traveled by Campbell in this act leads him to a series of Australian pop songs from the '80s, the best of which are "Comic Conversations" (J. Bromley) and "What About Me" (Frost/Frost). The show also includes a highly successful tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr. in the form of a talk/sung rendition of "Mr. Bojangles" that features a daring Christopher Denny arrangement and some stylish work on bass by Jared Egan. And even though Campbell's Bobby Darin medley seemed somewhat truncated, there is no doubt that this young Aussie utterly captures the brash energy of his idol.
That energy is so palpable that, on stage at the Café Carlyle, Campbell sometimes seems like a restless, caged tiger. Paradoxically, he shines brightest when singing a tender ballad like "Where or When" (Rodgers & Hart). But, in truth, he shines from start to finish in this show--and that includes his quick-witted, often ad-libbed patter. Simply put, it's great to have him back in New York.
John Barrowman: Work To Be Done
Five years ago, when David Campbell made his New York cabaret debut at age 23, he was already a more commanding cabaret performer than John Barrowman is now, and that's despite Barrowman's having hired Bruce Vilanch to write his new show at Arci's Place and Barry Kleinbort to direct it.
Granted, this show was created in a great hurry because of scheduling confusion--Barrowman believed he was coming in to Arci's a full month later--but there's not the slightest evidence of Vilanch's writing here. And the usually reliable Kleinbort has failed to stop J.B. from singing songs that he should never have gone near, like "With One Look" from Sunset Boulevard. Sure, Barrowman co-starred with the iconic Betty Buckley in the West End edition of that show, but the gulf between his version and hers is wide. Even in more wisely chosen songs like "Fools Rush In" (Bloom/Mercer), Barrowman suggests, at best, a clean-cut, safe '50's idol--a Fabian for the bubblegum set.
This fellow has a pretty voice to go with his pretty face, and he avoids the big mistake that theater people often make when they come to cabaret: He doesn't concertize. To the extent that Barrowman communicates anything when he sings, he does so directly, making genuine eye contact with the patrons. Unfortunately, he appears to have little to say, even if his selections are presented in engaging arrangements by musical director/pianist Gerald Sternbach. Like an ice skater, Barrowman skims along the surface of deep musical theater songs like Stephen Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little" and "Being Alive." This may come as troubling news for folks heading down to the Sondheim extravaganza in Washington, D.C. this summer in that Barrowman is scheduled to play Bobby in Company. But there is hope: When he does connect with his material, as he does in a song based on a Robert Burns poem called "Bonme Doone" (an ode to his Scottish background), Barrowman does so with true feeling. He just needs to achieve that connection more often.