Jason Robert Brown is a hot commodity on the theater scene these days. Since first appearing at 54 Below last September, the über-talented singer-songwriter has one show, The Bridges of Madison County, about to open on Broadway. Another, Honeymoon in Vegas, seems imminently bound for the Great White Way. "If you're a real-estate developer looking for something to do with a plot of land in midtown, you might consider building a theater in which we can perform our show," he quipped about the latter musical in one of his more jovial moments of audience banter.
An undoubtedly gifted musician and composer, Brown has a self-effacing and occasionally uncomfortable stage presence that manifests itself in his intersong audience banter. It's hard to reconcile the dude with the soulful rock voice who just delivered a kick-ass piano riff with the awkward Suzie warning us not to clap after his next number. Wisely, Brown keeps the chitchat to a minimum.
The show begins with the familiar strains of "The New World," the driving opening number from Brown's 1995 song cycle Songs for a New World. Morgan Karr (Spring Awakening), Whitney Bashor (The Bridges of Madison County), and Dan'yelle Williamson (Memphis) join Brown in this spectacular show opener that sets the stage for an evening of vocal pyrotechnics and dramatically charged lyrics.
Brown puts on the same backer's-audition pairing of songs from Honeymoon in Vegas that he performed at 54 Below last year: "I Love Betsy" (Brown with gusto and flair) and "Anywhere but Here" (Bashor with exceptional grace and honesty). Williamson takes the stage next with a coy yet joyful version of "The Lamest Place in the World" from 13. Williamson's rich and resonant voice subtly highlights the subtext of this soft-rock jam.
Karr gives a high-flying performance of "Advice to the Playaz," a musical setting of Hamlet's pep talk to the players that Brown wrote on commission for the Guthrie Theater's 50th Anniversary. "Speak the speech, I pray you," Bashor and Williamson sing, channeling their best sassy-session backup vocalists. As the song progresses into a disco beat, they switch over to a rhythmic "To Be or Not to Be" as Karr riffs his head off. Seated behind 54 Below's Steinway piano, Brown buttoned this rollicking Shakespearean dance remix by bluntly opining, "So dumb."
Singing a cappella at first, Brown delivers a heartfelt rendition of "It All Fades Away" from The Bridges of Madison County, followed by Bashor singing the forthcoming tuner's "Another Life." These songs exhibit a maturity and nuance in Brown's lyricism that made me very excited to see this show in full production.
Brown is at his best in two songs that come later in the show and have nothing to do with Broadway musicals: Jamming with his band, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings (bass: Randy Landau, percussion: Jamie Eblen, guitar: Gary Sieger), Brown delivers a smoking-hot rendition of "Break Me Blues," a song about humiliation and domination. He stops the show with "Caravan of Angels," a song about the village it takes to sustain a long-term relationship. Brown prefaced, "This is a song about what it's like to be married for ten years."
He brings everything full circle with a hard-charging rendition of "Moving Too Fast" from The Last Five Years. Brown endows his layered performance with the exuberance of a young man to whom success comes easily and the anger of an older man who sees the pitfalls of such a rapid ascendance yet can't help but be seduced all over again.
Jason Robert Brown performs six more shows at 54 Below: Wednesday, Nov. 20 at 7PM; Thursday, Nov. 21 at 7PM; Friday, Nov. 22 at 8PM and 11PM; and Saturday, Nov. 23 at 8PM and 11PM.