By Adam Cohen . . .
Jason Robert Brown, composer, Tony winner, held an amazing court on Friday, May 13 at Feinstein’s/54 Below. Backed by a scintillatingly tight band, he offered the audience a range of numbers—including a world premiere—from upcoming shows including “Farewell, My Concubine” and “The Connector.”
Brown is currently represented on Broadway with his first show in seven years, the Tony-nominated “Mr. Saturday Night.”
His songs are musically intricate and dense with touches of jazz, blues, pop and, on this night, disco. Each is layered with urbanely witty lyrics. Seeing him at the piano, leading the band and singing, is quite astounding and a guaranteed fun evening.
Sure there’s the promise of discovery of his new music, but being able to see a composer at work, close-up—especially with his humor—is too good to pass up. His first song was originally a piece for an industrial which he thought was “a good tune that I repurposed with new lyrics.” And thankfully he’s able to share it beyond the original audience of one thousand insurance agents in Las Vegas.
He also premiered a new song written in the style of Paul Simon. He worried it might belong on Sesame Street. Percolating with boisterously peppy pop and lyrics about figuring out what in the world we can fix, it’s a solid number filled with joy. His other numbers touched on themes as diverse as Instagram likes and Selena Gomez, to how we deal with one another and values like kindness, patience and respect.
His generosity as a composer/lyricist lies in providing musicians and singers with something truly rich to play with. In the span of a single song, he’s creating full lives for performers and his two singers, Anastasia Talley (Girl from the North Country) and Cheeyang Ng (2021 Princess Grace Award Winner) who generously repaid the compliment with committed, engaging renditions of his songs. They performed lush three-part harmonies and had spotlight moments. Ng delivered a lovely piece from “Farewell, My Concubine.”
The number from “The Connector” was infused with Middle Eastern tones, illustrating the evolution of Brown’s work, musically. The show, as described by Brown, “will come to New York next February . . . [and] is about a young writer who writes for a New Yorker or The Atlantic-type magazine.” The piece referenced the Wailing Wall and how “fate is disappearing” and we must “reinspire wonder.” Definitely a must-see once the musical opens.
The band featured Gary Sieger on electric and acoustic guitars, Randy Landau on bass, Lisette Santiago on percussion and Shannon Ford on drums, along with others, including a great flutist and saxophonist.
Brown is a gifted composer, a superb orchestrator, a sublime accompanist, a playful host and an insightful and committed performer of his music. His concert was a fun evening with eclectic music, amazing singing, and a swinging band.
Jason Robert Brown performs again Sunday, May 15 at 7:00pm at Feinstein’s/54 Below, and streams live May 15 at 7:00pm. For reservations and information, visit 54below.com/JRB.