In the two years since it opened, Broadway nightclub 54 Below has presented a handful of shows that have gone above and beyond the usual sort of "cabaret show" experience. Norbert Leo Butz's profound Girls, Girl, Girls is one, Laura Benanti's quirky In Constant Search of the Right Kind of Attention another. What these shows have in common, more than good pacing and pleasant set list, is that they didn't simply follow the format of "now, I'm going to sing this song." They had stories, which allowed the performers to take center stage in a way that didn't seem false or forced.
That kind of transcendence is what makes Lindsay Mendez and Derek Klena's energetic and delightful show #Klendez at 54 Below one to add to the list. This is the story of their ensuing friendship, one that has perhaps become one of the most meaningful they'll ever have. They met, as she relays in rehearsed but off-the-cuff-sounding patter, in 2012 when they were cast in the off-Broadway musical Dogfight. They quickly became each other's support system as they performed in the intensely emotional show together. In 2013, they played Elphaba and Fiyero in the Broadway production of Wicked.
While those hoping for a concert of showtunes will probably be disappointed — there's no "As Long as You're Mine" for the Wicked fans — the set list is an extremely well-put-together blend of jazz (to suit her velvety voice), rock and pop (to suit his), folk, and country. Mendez particularly dazzles with "The Boy Next Door" from Meet Me in St. Louis (a tribute to Facebook stalking Klena before they officially met), while he presents an excellent version of Cat Stevens' "Wild World." Together, they're adorable as they duet on Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "Close to You" and "Make Me Happy" from Ryan Scott Oliver's rock-song-cycle 35mm. Particularly exciting is a mid-show folk medley — songs that she discovered researching her role in Dogfight — where they cover "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" (while tossing daisies around the room), "Little Boxes," and "If I Had a Hammer," among other tunes.
Not to fear, Dogfight, the Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Peter Duchan musical that brought them together, is indeed well-represented by the end of the 75-minute concert, particularly through the dazzling goose-bump-inducing song "First Date/Last Night". (Duchan, as it happens, directed this concert, which features first-rate musical direction and arrangements for killer orchestra of six by Dogfight band leader Bryan Perri.)
The show ends with a surprise or two, along with a lovely, meaningful take on Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." You can see how much Mendez and Klena value making music together. The passion they bring to each song elevates #Klendez to a higher plane than other shows of similar nature. If this is the concert they're putting on in 2014, after only knowing each other since 2012, imagine how tremendous their show will be in 2045.