Howard McGillin
Howard McGillin
With his silvery-smooth tenor and nearly ageless leading-man looks, few Broadway performers can sell a love song -- whether it's a happy or sad one -- with as much finesse as Howard McGillin. Wisely, then, love songs of one sort or another make up most of Isn't It Romantic?, his compact, appealing cabaret debut at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room.

McGillin's smile may be sunny and his personality is exceedingly affable, but when he wraps his voice around tales of loss and regret, he's at his best. Stephen Sondheim's gorgeously melancholy "Good Thing Going," Tom Kitt and Amanda Green's beautiful and rueful "Laura, Laura" (from High Fidelity), and, especially, Joseph Thalken and Barry Kleinbort's wistful ballad "Time" are all among the show's high points.

He's just as comfortable, musically, with the upside of love, offering a suitably dreamy medley of "All the Things You Are" and "Isn't It Romantic?", a hopeful "Two for the Road," a bouncy "Haven't Met You Yet," the pop hit made famous (and co-written) by Michael Buble, and an exuberant take on "She Loves Me" (nicely followed with another if far different number from that show, "Dear Friend.")

As it happens, though, McGillin's true joie de vivre doesn't fully let loose until his friend and frequent performing partner Rebecca Luker joined him for a duet of "Let's Fall In Love," which practically exploded from the tiny stage. (Graciously -- and thankfully for the audience -- he allowed Luker her own solo spot: a stunning rendition of the ballad "Stay," written by Thalken and Mark Campbell for the new musical And the Curtain Ries.)

There are times, however, when the act doesn't live up to its potential. McGillin's patter is distinctly over-rehearsed, as if nothing that might happen, on or off the stage, can make him vary from his script. And while he shares a memory or two of his life, especially in the early section of the show, the recollections are mostly of the tried-and true, ho-hum sort. (A rare, welcome exception has to do with a phone conversation with an unnamed Broadway composer, who is clearly Stephen Sondheim).

It also strikes me as odd that McGillin prominently mentions appearing in Anything Goes on Broadway and London, but never chooses to sing a single number from that show (or anything by Cole Porter). And while personally, I never ever need to hear "Music of the Night" again, the omission of the song -- or any mention of his thousands of performances in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera -- might well prove disappointing to his fans.