54 Below, Broadway
A first ever visit to New York’s bijou and intimate 54 Below was to prove a surprise treat. In the heart of theatreland this chic venue attracts the cream of Broadway (and the West End) with an ambience that has inspired London’s Crazy Coqs and Hippodrome.
On the bill this particular night was Jack O’Brien – an acclaimed Tony-winning director in the States, probably best known in the UK for re-creating Hairspray in an Olivier winning production at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 2007. It is always fun when an artiste more used to the creative offstage process braves the spotlight themselves and O’Brien exceeded expectations. A remarkable 75 (!) his caustic wit and timing were spot on throughout and in opening with Gigi’s I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore, O’Brien set the tone for a mirthful (and occasionally reflective) set.
Produced, directed and encouraged by Scott Whitman – and with an immaculately rehearsed four piece band in attendance (comprising Dan Lipton, Pete Donovan, Dean Sharenow and Eric DellaPenna) , O’Brien’s set was slick. If his patter at times descended deliciously to “Carry On” style level of smut, (with O’Brien conducting a straw poll of the audience to suggest that his ensemble be named Jack O’Brien And The Eight Balls) no one really cared. The talent on stage spoke for itself.
O’Brien’s personal history was to offer up the pearl in the evening’s oyster, as the acclaimed director revealed that one of his longest friendships, stretching back through the years, was with jazz musician and composer Bob James and how long ago they had penned numbers for a Tarzan-themed show Jungle Man. Proceeding to then sing that show’s Blue Tattoo and a strongly tom-tommed This Is The Life, proved a novel diversion to the evening’s list of more familiar tunes.
It was however, when O’Brien invited James to the piano to perform perhaps his guest’s most famous composition Angela (aka the theme to hit 1970’s TV series Taxi) that 54 Below was first hushed, before erupting into wild applause. Angela was one of the truly evocative TV tunes of its time - I still hum it each time I drive across the 59th Street Bridge (Simon & Garfunkel eat your heart out!) - and to hear it played live, by James, was a moment I had never expected to experience. Priceless.
O’Brien wrapped up his set with a generous glass of bubbly to everyone in the house and a rendition of the Judy Garland number Here’s To Us. A charming end to an exquisite evening. Maybe he (with Bob James?) might consider a night or two in cabaret on this side of the Pond. I hope so!
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