NY Cabaret Review Marilyn Lester
When silent screen superstar Greta Garbo made her first talking picture, the ads widely proclaimed Garbo Talks! Much the same can be said of superstar director Jack O’Brien’s nightclub debut: O’Brien Sings!
Taking the stage with gusto, O’Brien sprang into the eponymous Cole Porter tune “I’ve Still Got My Health” (Panama Hattie, 1940), vibrantly launching an evening of sparkling fun and captivating narrative about a theatrical life well lived.
But Jack O’Brien is, after all, a mega personage with a shipload of directorial awards, accolades, kudos and successes galore. So – Why this? Why now? He asks the question himself (he knows we’ve wondered), and answers it quickly; besides forestalling parties he didn’t want, having turned 75 last June, he decided he’d celebrate by “scaring the s—t out of myself.”
Yet it turns out O’Brien is no stranger to singing on the stage. He was, he relates, Mr. Snow in a University of Michigan production of Carousel. The old training comes through as O’Brien segues into Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” (Gigi, 1958). True, his pleasant and serviceable voice may not be youthfully robust and vibrant 50 years on, but like the great Mabel Mercer in her dotage, O’Brien can put over a song like Olivier delivering a Hamlet soliloquy.
At his U of M alma mater, O’Brien forged a lifelong friendship with the jazz icon, pianist and composer, the multiple Grammy Award winner, Bob James, who appeared as a special guest. The duo recreated their novelty number “Blue Tattoo,” written for Ellis Rabb’s APA Phoenix Theater production of Pantagleize; as well as their “This Is The Life,” a tune performed only once ever, at a tribute to O’Brien some years ago. Finally, O’Brien gave the stage over to James who played his beautiful and familiar, “Angela: Theme From Taxi.”
Returning to the spotlight, O’Brien continued the narrative of his evolving directorial career, offering Harold Arlen’s “It’s Only A Paper Moon” (The Great Magoo, 1933); Joe Iconis’ utterly delightful and immensely clever “52,” written for the first Once Upon a Time in New York City benefit concert; Cole Porter’s “Use Your Imagination” (Out of This World, 1950) and “Experiment” (Nymph Errant, 1933); and James Taylor’s 1977 hit, “Secret O’ Life.”
Early on in the evening, O’Brien characterized himself as a storyteller. Indeed Jack O’Brien is a storyteller of breathtaking ability – a raconteur whose trajectory is, like any great musical, perfectly driven forward by numbers that support the text. I’ve Still Got My Health, So What Do I Care? is a seamless show with intelligent pacing, great timing and perfect rhythm. As my companion of the evening remarked, “he sings and he swings.” And he’s funny too – really, authentically funny. A “costume change,” for instance, involved comically switching a pink bow tie for a blue one. As “the Spartacus of the gay movement,” he led a saucy audience participation segment which yielded a band name: Jack O’Brien and His Eight Balls.
O’Brien confided that in mounting and performing the show he’d “never been so frightened.”
No one noticed. Growing in confidence with each number, his great warmth and immense talent turned 54 Below into a comfortable living room full of happy contented family and friends – even “hapless strangers from Ames, Iowa, who may have wandered in expecting to hear Patti LuPone.”
Jack O’Brien was backed by a sensational quarter of musicians: Dan Lipton, Music Director and piano, Pete Donovan on bass, Dean Sharenow on drums, and Erik Della Penna on guitar. O’Brien’s friend and colleague, Scott Wittman, guided and directed.
Topping off a unique and wondrous evening was the perfect choice of song: the 1953 pop standard by Johnny Richards and Carolyn Leigh, “Young at Heart.” Happy 75th, Jack O’Brien. May you be blessed with another 75 glorious birthdays.
I’ve Still Got My Health, So What Do I Care?- November 7 and 8 at 9:30 pm
54 Below, 254 W 54th St,(Cellar) New York, NY 10019, 646-476-3551, www.54below.com