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Elizabeth Ahlfors

Brian D’Arcy James: A Smash!

"Under the Influence"
Brian D’Arcy James
Musical Direction Dan Lipton
54 Below, 254 West 54 Street
June 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 at 8pm. Second show Friday and Saturday 11pm.
Music Charge $30, $40. $25 food and beverage minimum
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors June 27, 2012

Brian d’Arcy James has worn many hats over his theater career. He went green as the title character in, "Shrek," went down with the ship in the musical, "Titanic," and was a cynical so-and-so in, "Sweet Smell of Success." He also faced off against Laura Linney in Broadway’s "Time Stands Still," Alice Ripley in “Next to Normal” and Debra Messing in TV’s “Smash.” One hat James had not yet worn, however, was a solo New York cabaret act.

James turned out to be a natural. He seemed to have the time of his life in his cabaret debut at 54 Below, singing the songs that put him, so to speak, “Under the Influence.” These were the pop/rock songs of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s that James grew up listening to and the music that influenced him. Comfortable with the in-your-face intimacy of the cabaret space, he showed a casual good humor, slightly self-deprecating, delightful with personal anecdotes of a self-described nerdy adolescence (although that’s hard to swallow with his gregarious, upbeat personality).

He demonstrated a persuasive connection to the music he chose that did not include the hair-metal “Rock of Ages” soundtrack. His inner-actor might be the reason that James’ teenaged eight-track player held the Billy Joel songbook and other story-songs that spoke for the era. Born in Saginaw, Michigan, James was drawn to the blue-collar New York sensibility in a medley of Billy Joel tunes like the dauntless, “Worse Comes to Worst,” and the bittersweet bite of “Everybody Loves You Now.” James’ nuanced baritone in, “She’s Got a Way,” heightened the sweetness without melting into syrup.

He delivered the intent of his selections, starting at the top with his opener, Steve Winwood and Will Jennings’ “Take It as It Comes,” with advice like, “We're all skating on the thinnest of ice/Got to take it as it comes.” On the bouncier end of the spectrum he brought the audience along into the buoyant Bobby Sherman hit, “Julie, Do Ya Love Me?” (Tom Bahler) and he set a bluesy undercurrent to Harry Connick Jr. and Ramsey McLean’s “Between Us.” Disappointingly, on this evening, his duet with backup singer, Haven Burton, did not reach a tight connection in their try to revive James Taylor and Carly Simon’s ebullient arrangement of “Mockingbird.”

James made it clear that he was not belittling today’s hits, and rocked out Adele’s hit, “I’ll Be Waiting.” He added two fine examples of his own tunes like “Good Ground.” The second, “Don’t Hold It Against Me,” written with Dan Lipton, affirmed his musical point of view, saluting the happy days of high school and the music of James’ idol, Billy Joel.

The accomplished piano man here was musical director and arranger, Dan Lipton, who led a high-spirited, seven-piece band with Erik Della Penna on guitar, Nicholas D'Amato on bass, drummer Damien Bassman, percussionist Greg Joseph, Bob Millikan on trumpet, saxophonist Paul Vercesi and two backup vocalists, Clarke Thorell (Hairspray, Titanic) and Haven Burton (Shrek).

Brian d’Arcy James’s affability charmed the audience and the rhythmic band behind him kept the energy rising right up the stairs and on to 54th Street. This glamorous spot is proving it’s a spot that is spot on.

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