By Ron Fassler . . .

It’s rare to be treated to a concert by not one, but two exquisite singers who embody all that’s great about Broadway musicals. But it’s exactly what happened last night at 54 Below, where Kate Baldwin and Aaron Lazar, old friends and co-workers going back twenty years, offered an evening of well-chosen show tunes of their own devising. They rocked in a series of duets and solo pieces, backed by the incredible American Pops Orchestra, superbly led by its musical director Luke Frazier. The 8-piece ensemble was the largest gathering of musicians I’ve ever seen at 54 Below. And though it left only the tiniest of areas for Baldwin and Lazar to perform in, they imaginatively used the entire room to sing out at each other from time to time, bringing the audience into the fray, much to the delight of the sold-out crowd.

Baldwin’s way with a song is well-known to theatregoers. Having graced the revivals of Finian’s Rainbow (2009) and Hello, Dolly! (2017), both of which resulted in Tony Award nominations, it’s wonderful to report that her lyric soprano perfectly adapts to a cabaret setting. She has the ability to switch out her tones effortlessly within the structure of a song, surprising us every step of the way with her intonation and versatility. I recall vividly from my standing room spot at the back of the Shubert Theatre when I first heard her sing “Ribbons Down My Back” in Dolly! I was so entranced, that I turned to the stranger standing next to me, where we simultaneously nodded in silent approval saying without words, “That’s how it’s done.” Last night, Baldwin mostly chose songs she’s strongly associated with, having played the roles in full productions. One exception was “Could I Leave You?” from Follies, leaving us to contemplate casting the other leads around her so we could see her take in its entirety on the role of Phyllis Stone, hopefully at some point in the future.

Lazar is certainly aging into his own Benjamin Stone from that musical as well. My first time experiencing his beautiful voice was in 2005 when he replaced Matthew Morrison as Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza (he gloriously sang that show’s “Il Mondo Era Vuoto,” still sounding incredible after seventeen years). Before that, Lazar had been steadily paying his dues as an understudy and as a replacement in such musicals as Phantom of the Opera (Raul), Sam Carmichael in Mamma Mia! and as Curly in the 2003 revival of Oklahoma! Impressive stats. His choice of future dream roles last night was to sing “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, a role he played in grad school. He offered a funny story about that production in which he told of singing the song at the dress rehearsal and feeling his rendition of it wasn’t registering. His fix? To ask the director to cut it. “The show doesn’t really need it, does it?

Lazar’s rendition showed no signs of it being unnecessary (and he should play it someday as a full-fledged adult). And when Baldwin chose “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as a personal favorite to sing, it was the orchestration by Luke Frazier that added immeasurably to its lovely sound. Sitting this one out at the piano, Frazier conducted just two pieces, a guitar and bass guitar, which started out in solo accompaniments, combining later mid-song to create a superb blend. Baldwin’s vocals soared and it was one of the evening’s true highlights. The same could be said for “Old Devil Moon,” Burton Lane and Yip Harburg’s perennial enchanter, that was charted in a captivating samba-style arrangement. All the members of the American Pops delivered in grand fashion and are worthy of mentioning by name: Dilyana Tsenov (Violin I), Tiffany Weist (Violin II), Jarvis Benson (Viola) Sean Neidlinger (Cello), Greg Watkins (Bass), David Cinquegrana (Guitar) and Dan Berkery (Drumset).

From the very opening moments, when Baldwin and Lazar launched into “One Second and a Million Miles” from Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, it was instantly and abundantly clear the sort of evening it would be. And upon that promises, they delivered a relaxed and friendly concert filled with excellent musicianship from beginning to end. As Lazar said continuously through the night as a sort of watch cry “Musicals are awesome!” And in his and Kate Baldwin’s capable hands, the point was proven repeatedly.

Photos: Ron Fassler