David Burtka at 54 Below
The Broadway veteran turns cabaret on its head with the help of his Tony-winning husband, Neil Patrick Harris.
David Burtka celebrated his 54 Below solo debut last night, staking his claim as the titular star of the aptly titled show Burtka, David. Nevertheless, after seeing the Broadway veteran's distinctly anti-cabaret showcase swimming in director-husband Neil Patrick Harris' signature fast-and-loose buffoonery, you walk away with far more NPH than DB.
The recent Tony winner and television star directs his husband's showcase from nuts to soup in a backwards bill that travels from Burtka's sloshed encore of "I'll Be Seeing You" to his sober intro of "I Feel a Song Coming On." The unorthodox format, which sticks it to traditional stand-and-croon cabaret, is undeniably the work of a man whose autobiography is a choose-your-own-adventure story — and it certainly succeeds in spicing up the tried and true methods so often seen on cabaret stages. The only problem is that the show's namesake gets lost in the schtick.
As the concept comes into focus for an initially confused crowd, Burtka works in an ingenuous biographical throughline. Along his journey from New York to Los Angeles and back, he picked up a husband, two children, and a culinary education, which he celebrates with trays of fresh-baked goods and a charming rendition of On the Town's "I Can Cook, Too." His starring role in the 2003 revival of Gypsy as the fancy-footed Tulsa also has a featured slot, as Burtka tells the story of his audition before the great Arthur Laurents while singing the character's signature tune, "All I Need Is the Girl."
His boyish tenor matches his perpetually youthful charm, which he uses to banter with his music director, radio personality Seth Rudetsky, as well as backup vocalists Jason Page and Kate Reinders (whom Burtka met doing Gypsy). Burtka's pop-infused pipes and admirably childlike enthusiasm are never more prominent than during his mash-up of Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" and Avril Lavigne's "I'm With You," which he duets with Reinders. Mad Men star Christina Hendricks also made a guest appearance for his opening-night performance, though an onstage tiff led to a lively one-sided duet of "You're the Top," delivered by Burtka with old-fashioned showmanship (fingers crossed, the squabble was staged and the pair are still friends).
Still, at the end of the day, Burtka has a tight schedule to keep, and you feel the numbers being checked off the list as the show rolls from finale to overture. Burtka's attempt to dust the cobwebs from an admittedly creaky format does not go unappreciated, but Harris' carefully curated variety hour constricts the authentic personality we are typically promised by the intimate cabaret setting. Rather than breathing refreshing life into the old-timey New York tradition, this overconceptualized evening of song and dance finds itself a bit winded.