Jay Armstrong Johnson at Feinstein’s/54 Below

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By Brian Scott Lipton

 

 

Many a performer’s first cabaret show is marked by one or all of the following: stories about their childhood, reminiscences of the early theater experiences, and an eclectic song list that essentially equals “music that means a lot to me” or “music I’ve always wanted to sing.”

In those regards, the debut of 29-year-old Broadway star Jay Armstrong Johnson at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Wednesday was no exception. Which is hardly to say this was your average debut. Take the audience (which included Feinstein and husband Terrence Flannery, Jackie Hoffman, Malcolm Gets, Barrett Foa, Nicholas Rodriguez and Jim Brochu). Or that instead of being accompanied by a single piano or classic trio, Johnson was joined by nine musicians, three back-up singers, and one fellow Broadway guest star. As for the repertoire, it was way beyond merely eclectic, encompassing Stephen Sondheim, One Direction, Sam Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Rascal Flatts, to name a few.

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And yet, despite some opening night jitters and a tad too much patter, Armstrong delivered one of the most exciting and most authentically felt acts I’ve seen in quite a while, with each tune exposing another facet in this handsome, gleaming diamond. If there’s something Johnson can’t sing well, thanks in part to his wide vocal range, you’ll have to prove it to me.

Still, some selections rang truer or had more impact than others. I was mesmerized by Ryan Scott Oliver’s haunting “Lost Boy” — written for a “deconstructed” adaptation of Peter Pan — that practically poured out of Johnson with exquisite, hard-wrought feeling. It’s now difficult to imagine a more inspired or beautifully sung pairing than Buckley’s ethereal “Everybody Here Wants You” with Sondheim’s gorgeous “Joanna.” (Johnson played the role of Antony in Lincoln Center’s recent production of Sweeney Todd to great acclaim.) And while I don’t always love medleys, bookending Smith’s plaintive “Lay Me Down” with the equally lovely “What of Piece of Work is Man” and a section of “Walking in Space” (both from Hair), with Johnson harmonizing beautifully with singers Billy Lewis Jr. and Allison Robinson on these three songs, was simply stunning.

Many of the lighter moments in the show were just as dazzling, starting with Jeff Blumenkrantz’s brilliant jazz-tinged version of “I Don’t Need Anything But You,” (from Annie) in which Johnson scatted and soared in counterpoint with the amazing Lindsay Mendez. “The Chicken Song,” Logan McWilliams’ R&B-flavored ode to the delights of fried poultry, was finger-licking good, and there was real joy emanating from Johnson and best pal Amanda Williams Ware (a true powerhouse) as they dug into Alanis Morissette’s “Thank You.”

I might have chosen that song as an encore (and I certainly would not have followed it up with Toto’s innocuous 1980s pop hit “Rosanna”). But Johnson proved his smarts (hidden beneath that Texan charm) by ending the 90-minute show with Marc Broussard’s ultra-touching “Gavin’s Song,” leaving his audiences to go home with a smile on their faces, a slight tear in their eyes, and more importantly, a wish to hear more from this singular talent.

 

Jay Armstrong Johnson continues at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54 Street) on April 29 and 30. For information, visit www.54Below.com/Feinstein’s.

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