Songwriter and performer Jason Robert Brown has turned the swank supper club 54 Below into a bluesy honky tonk with his new cabaret show: a toe-tapping and frequently stirring party that also serves as a preview of two forthcoming musicals from Brown: Honeymoon in Vegas and The Bridges of Madison County.
From the former show, Brown offers up "I Love Betsy," a whimsical patter song that he's crafted for the show's hero Jack, a guy who's just deciding that he can propose to his girlfriend of five years, despite the deathbed promise he'd made to his mother to never marry. Filled with cleverly unexpected lyrics (he even rhymes "fiancé" and "Beyonce"), and delivered with a twinkle by Brown, the song simply sparkles.
The set also includes "Anywhere But Here," a tune for Jack's long-suffering girlfriend filled with the sort of bittersweet ironies that can fill both the songwriter's music and lyrics. At Brown's opening night, the audience was treated to a third song from this musical when Tony Danza, who is slated to star in the show, took to the stage to deftly deliver a buoyant comedy number from the Broadway-bound tuner.
Alongside these tunes are a pair of graceful ones from Bridges. And thanks to guest vocalist Shoshana Bean's sensitive and wistful delivery, the gently folksy "Another Life," in which a woman contemplates the reasons for her failed marriage, proves to be one of the evening's decided highlights.
The balance of the set –- which features not only Brown's accomplished work as a pianist, but also some swell riffs from guitarists Gary Sieger and Matt Hinkley, along with bassist Randy Landau –- is comprised of material from some of Brown's previously produced shows, as well as individual compositions.
Brown brings a driving force to "Shiksa Goddess" (from The Last 5 Years) that imbues the humorously crafted song with a decided edge. Later in the evening, with "Caravan of Angels," a paean to the friends who stand by the songwriter and his wife (songwriter Georgia Stitt), Brown's vocals take on a softer gentler quality, even as his songwriting retains its ability to crackle with a decided pop/country sound.
Throughout the show, Bean showcases not only her powerhouse vocals, but the chameleon-like ability she has to shade her delivery with a remarkable variety of emotion. Early on, she captures the goofy exuberance that comes with a kind of love-at-first-sight meeting in "And I Will Follow" and later, with "Break Me Blues," she channels an inner R&B singer with passionate, thrilling soulfulness.
Finally, with "All Things in Time," audiences are treated to both the sounds that come from her lovely smoky lower register and the sharper, sunnier sounds that come with her graceful higher tones.