Theater News

Jack Donahue Welcomes Spring

JACK DONAHUE has springtime in his step, very much to the delight of Barbara & Scott Siegel.

When a performer has a twinkle in his or her eye, it usually suggests something alive and playful about that person. Jack Donahue goes way beyond twinkle to mischievous glow.

With the looks of a young Warren Beatty, Donahue is that charming scamp you just can’t resist. When you add an abundance of talent to this attractive package, you get an entertainer who is marked for stardom. In the not-too-distant future, Jack Donahue will be starring in Broadway musicals, singing in concert halls, and/or finding fame on the big and/or small screen. In the very nearest future, however, you can find him at the FireBird Café, honing his skills and winning new fans with a new show called Spring Up Time. Donahue still has some raw edges, but that’s part of his appeal. He is so fundamentally gifted that it’s exciting to see and hear him perform before he reaches the perfection he will eventually attain.

At the start of his latest cabaret show, he gives his voice free rein to explore style over content. That’s not the ideal direction for him, because what he does best is interpret lyrics. As if realizing that his musical experiment is yielding minimal results, he soon begins to focus more on his strengths, such as his disarming, self-deprecating humor. After singing “Little Green” by Joni Mitchell, he coyly says, “I might be a little green myself,” and this admission cleverly sets up a number that plays with his hated childhood nickname: “Jackie.” The number, of course, is “Jackie” by Brel/Shuman/Blau/Jouannest. Donahue gives this angry, needy song his own personal twist, driving its meaning home with dark humor and the caffeinated beat of a heart about to explode.

From a would-be jazz stylist at the top of the act, Donahue now transforms himself into a musical comedy performer. With just the right touch of dry, deadpan detachment, he sings Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in The Park” and gets squawks of laughter from a happily surprised audience. This is not your typical cabaret fare. Nor is Lehrer’s “The Machismo Tango,” which Donahue performs with winning comic finesse. The singer’s musical comedy impulse also embraces composer Jay Leonhart’s quirky sense of humor in a hilarious send-up of poets and poetry called “Robert Frost.” Donahue’s combination of delightfully dicey material and cheeky delivery is a testament to the comedic possibilities of cabaret, and his effectiveness as a musical comedy performer is enhanced by his bright, quick-witted patter. He’s such a natural that his scripted remarks sound ad-libbed–and his more obvious ad-libs are so smart, you think they must be scripted.

When Donahue turns to serious material, he doesn’t tug at your heartstrings; he ties them in knots. His coupling of “Good Thing Going On” (Stephen Sondheim) with “Autumn” (Maltby & Shire) artfully carries the weight of an emotional meltdown. And, for all his bad boy charm, Donahue’s vulnerability is palpable in his deeply personal rendition of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Only a Dream.” Also palpable is the excellent work of musical director Steve Gaboury, whose arrangements are gregarious yet never overpowering. Gaboury’s charts support Donahue’s quest to explore lyrical nuances while also revealing subtle interpretations of their own.

Finally: A true test of any singer comes when he or she takes on a famous song that has already been sung to perfection by others. Donahue sticks his feet into the fire with his rendition of the Maxwell Anderson/Kurt Weill classic “Lost in the Stars.” Regardless of who does your favorite version of this song, Donahue will either match or surpass it. He’s that good.