Nathan Gunn
Nathan Gunn
I dare anyone not to fall in love -- either with the person next to them or the performer on stage -- during the first 20 minutes of An Evening With Nathan Gunn, the famed opera star's beautifully considered and beautifully performed cabaret debut, at the Cafe Carlyle. And while love at first sight -- never mind first note -- with Gunn is a distinct possibility, I wouldn't recommend rushing the stage. (His accompanist is his formidable and brilliant wife, Julie).

Choosing a program for a room as intimate as this one is clearly a challenge for Gunn, whose voice has pierced some of the world's most supersized performing venues. And as he proved last week at Avery Fisher Hall, in a truly extraordinary concert with Kelli O'Hara and the New York Philharmonic, his light baritone is ideally suited for some of Broadway's mega showstoppers. Yet wisely, if a little sadly, he eschewed those tunes -- as well as the entire opera repertoire -- for an eclectic program that took advantage of the Carlyle's unique setting.

Gunn aimed for pure romance in his first section, and squarely hit the target, moving from Gene Scheer's meditative "Just Before the Sunrise," through surprisingly delicate renditions of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," "My Funny Valentine, and "I've Got A Crush on You."

While an evening of such standards might have pleased the crowds, Gunn stuck to his guns and moved onto songs that spoke to him personally. And he hit the bullseye not just with extremely sensitive readings of two Tom Waits' tunes, "The Briar and the Rose" and "Whistlin' Down the Wind," but -- most surprisingly and effectively -- a rendition of "Home on the Range," which he delivered with the conviction and beauty of a religious hymn. (The fact that it was preceded by a deliciously humorous story told by both Gunn and his wife added to the experience).

Taking the cabaret experience seriously, Gunn moved expertly to three songs by the great William Bolcom (including the fascinating "George"), before truly thrilling the audience with breathtakingly perfect performances of "C'est Moi" and "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot. (He played Lancelot in the New York Philharmonic's recent production.) For an encore, he once more hit the heights with perhaps the strongest version of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" I've ever heard.

It will be fascinating where Gunn chooses to focus his career. Should he cut back on opera, I have little doubt --having seen Gunn in a variety of settings over the past few years -- that he could not just be Broadway's next great leading man, but that he could also make a yearly engagement at Carlyle something to mark on one's calendar well in advance!