By Andrew Poretz . . .
What do you get when an opera singer and a brilliant classically trained pianist, pals since their student days at Juilliard, get together for . . . a cabaret show? When it’s at the Café Carlyle, you know it will be a night to remember. Grammy Award-winning opera singer John Brancy teamed up with pianist Peter Dugan for a winning two-night run at Café Carlyle on April 20 and 21.
Mr. Brancy has a rangy baritone with a mellifluous, resonant bottom voice. He uses his airy, angelic head voice to extend his range even further, nearly fooling the ear into thinking he is a bari-tenor. The star is quite appealing, with a quick wit and instincts of a great dramatic actor. He sings fluently in multiple languages.
The boyish Mr. Dugan, a Yamaha recording artist, is a pianist of considerable skill—as comfortable with jazz as he is with chamber music. He also hosts the popular NPR radio show From the Top.
Mr. Brancy came to the stage sporting a dark purple tuxedo jacket over a white formal shirt, sans tie. The bald, bearded Brancy appears more mature than his 34 years, which lends a certain gravitas to his more dramatic songs. He poked fun at his baldness with the title song of the musical “Hair” as an aria, with lyrics describing various hair lengths and styles. Mr. Dugan, though not usually a singer, provided sweet harmonies here.
The show, to a great extent, served as a paean to the rich history of the Carlyle. Mr. Brancy put his acting skills to use on “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” a song dating to the Carlyle’s 1931 construction. His stance and expressive eyes brought poignancy to Yip Harburg’s powerful lyrics.
Mr. Brancy sang in both French and English on the 1904 waltz “Fascination,” which he ended on a falsetto note. Turning to George Gershwin, he performed the wonderfully witty, sophisticated “By Strauss,” a song filled with name-dropping of the great songwriters of the day.
The delightfully funny repartee between John and Peter was a significant part of the evening’s joy. While Mr. Dugan provided a wonderfully sensitive approach on Jacque Brel’s “Ne me quitte pas” (“If You Go Away”), Mr. Brancy connected emotionally, even when singing in French, thanks to his acting instincts.
Referring to a “date night in Venice,” the polyglot singer declared that Reynaldo Han’s “La Barcheta” was “too steamy for the French language. We must sing it in Italian!” Here, Mr. Brancy exhibited extraordinary breath control.
The star performed a unique rendition of Charles Trenet’s “La Mer,” the song better known by its English adaptation, “Beyond the Sea,” made popular by Bobby Darin and later in the film Finding Nemo. In Mr. Brancy’s hands, one could almost see him on the stern of the ship, looking out to sea.
Mr. Dugan stopped the show with a sensational, jazzy arrangement that took a Rachmaninoff prelude and brilliantly transformed it to “Rach On.”
Turning to the Kurt Weill songbook, Mr. Brancy, with harmony from Mr. Dugan, performed a lovely “Speak Low” (lyrics by Ogden Nash) from One Touch of Venus. The travelogue cabaret flew to Germany for the original lyrics of “Mack the Knife.” Surprisingly, the arrangement borrowed the four modulations of the Darin version. The audience clapped along when the tempo turned upbeat. Mr. Brancy kept Louis Armstrong’ and Bobby Darin’s “Lotte Lenya” reference, and cleverly substituted “Frank Sinatra” and “Bobby Darin” for “Jenny Diver” and “Lucy Brown.”
To honor the Carlyle’s first resident, Richard Rodgers, the pair performed a medley of two Rodgers and Hart ballads. Mr. Dugan’s delicate introduction on “It’s Easy to Remember” deftly set up the premise for Mr. Brancy. Switching to “Where or When,” Mr. Brancy sang rubato for much of the song before handing it off to Peter, who took us on a musical journey before John returned for a powerful, emotional climax.
Finally, in homage to the great Bobby Short, whose residency at Café Carlyle spanned more than 35 years, Mr. Brancy sang a pair of Cole Porter songs. He used his powerful Broadway voice for “I Happen to Like New York,” and on a fast “Night and Day,” Mr. Dugan let loose with a hot jazz solo.
A well-deserved encore of “It’s a Wonderful World” was especially lovely at the end, when it became a harmony duet for John and Peter.
John Brancy and Peter Dugan in Concert took place on April 20 & 21 at Café Carlyle (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue).
Photos: David Andrako