In Under the Influence, Brian d'Arcy James' cabaret act at 54 Below this past weekend, the secret word was "groovy." A return engagement of a well-received show he played there last summer, the Tony Award nominee, who is about to start rehearsals for Shakespeare's Macbeth at Lincoln Center Theater, takes us on a tour through what influenced him musically growing up. Judging by the set list, he's a funktastic child of the '70s and '80s.
Unlike some of his musical-theater colleagues who've also played the room, James isn't a natural at the between-song patter. Dressed in a gray suit and salmon-colored button down, it's easiest to describe his style as "adorable geek." He just wants to share some of his favorite songs, and that's really OK; he does so with the fervent and infectious enthusiasm of a child showing off his newest toy.
How else can you explain the excitement he conveys when he recalls how he discovered that the B side of Billy Joel's "Allentown" record contains a tune called "Elvis Presley Blvd.," a song lost to time except in the mind of aficionados? While that pairing doesn't appear in this concert, we are treated to a trio of Billy Joel's finest: the bouncy "Worst Comes to Worst," a tender "She's Got a Way," and a reimagined, swinging rendition of "Everybody Loves You Now."
The rest of the concert takes us through his musical influences. It's a mostly upbeat show (Kate McGarrigle's "Saratoga Spring" is the heartfelt encore) and, with the exception of an inspiring "Beautiful City" from Godspell, is entirely sans showtunes (which is a good thing). Perhaps the highlight is the classic Genesis tune "That's All," which closes the concert and gives James the opportunity to introduce his awesomely talented seven-piece band led by Dan Lipton on piano. Each member is just as much an asset as the lead singer; Damien Bassman and Greg Joseph provide solid backup on percussion; Paul Vercesi and Bob Millikan are expert horn players; and Erik Della Penna and Nicholas D'Amato are great guitarists.
If Brian d'Arcy James really does want to become a rock star, we should welcome it with open arms.