Review by Matt Smith . . .
“If all the kings had their queens on the throne / We would pop champagne and raise a toast
/ To all of the queens who are fighting alone / Baby, you’re not dancin’ on your own…”
So begins our magical, melodious journey into the catalogue of the evening’s titular “kings and queens” – music industry icons, as chosen by theatrical power couple Kelli Barrett and Jarrod Spector, that inspired them from an early age, providing the soundtrack of their childhoods and subsequently shaping their lives and careers.
From Tina Turner and David Bowie to Dolly Parton and Michael Bublé, the set list runs the gamut, with the pair providing a crash course on each artists’ ascent to the throne, spouting facts about their upbringing, detailing when they were downtrodden, and ultimately questioning what drives an artist to have such a hypnotic effect on an audience, transcending a genre, transfixing the public, and, for better or worse, permanently permeating our personal lives.
It’s a brilliant concept for constructing a show, and it works so well here. Why? One reason lies in the fact that it plays like a performance. Each song and artist is masterfullypaired with another it influenced, highlighting the connection between the two of them. A vivacious blending of the two sounds, thanks to expert orchestrations by Michael Mahadeen, the combination works in that it allows our hosts to tell a story organically, piecing the elements together to showcase their “lineage.” Bouncing from pop to swing, soul to country, and classic to contemporary, they point out parallels between Diana Ross and Beyoncé, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, and Paula Abdul and Britney Spears, among others – all without missing a beat.
Which is, perhaps, why the second reason this concept works well is because of the performers themselves. Never ones to turn down an opportunity to laugh, they keep the energy light and playful throughout. While resolute in their coverage of the trajectory of these artists, they also take care to pepper in some of their own artistic strengths; Barrett yodels on a Patsy Cline melody, while Spector injects a Prince favorite with his signature Frankie falsetto.
And, they don’t stray from their Broadway roots either, first jazzing up a Gershwin classic – sung in honor of Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong – with their own affectionate lyrics, while later saluting “King of Broadway” Stephen Sondheim.
They’re equally endearing in their storytelling – Barrett sharing photos of her “losing it” at their wedding when Spector broke into an Otis Redding song, while the groom laments declining an offer to join the Mickey Mouse Club. Merging their personal stories of finding themselves through this music with that of the artists’ journeys themselves helps to emphasize that sense of impact even further.
And in telling their story in the way they do, they give us a glimpse of who they are as people, individually and as a couple; the banter back and forth, poking fun at family members, evoking impressions and engaging in friendly fights, further makes you fall for them as partners, beyond what you may already know of the other-worldly vocal prowess they each possess as soloists. If they weren’t a power couple already, they cemented their status with this performance.
But though the evening maintained a festive, “party” atmosphere throughout, one of the most moving moments came when the mood was not so high. “What do we do with the art of monstruous men?” Barrett asks, during a more somber, sobering portion of the program. She’s quoting the title of a Paris Review article, published in 2017 at the height of the infamous #MeToo movement, while speaking of the recent revelations behind Michael Jackson’s abuse allegations. While listing off some of the other men caught in their own webs of late, she even divulges a skeleton in her own closet, when one of them crossed her path.
Behind her, as she speaks, Spector begins a verse of Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a song we all know to be synonymous with self-reflection and a desire to enact social and global change. Barrett says she’s banned most of MJ’s music from her personal playlist, but she’s kept this one as a haunting reminder to herself: to continue to look within – and urging us to look within as well.
It leaves us to ponder: “do we forgive the transgressions for the sake of keeping the art?” An important question as is, and one we continue to grapple with in our ever-changing world of “cancel culture,” but in the context of a show that looks at how artists captivate us with their music, infiltrating our mantras and our beliefs that we worship them sometimes to the point of obsession, it’s all the more chilling and packs that much more of a punch.
That said,in answer to the earlier question, the pair concludes that these artists – collectively “poor, picked on and completely underestimated” – are revered because they represent the epitome of resilience – a sentiment all too prevalent to us right now as we navigate a world amid a pandemic. They grew up “fighting alone,” as the opening quote suggests, but thanks to a fervid fanbase that catapulted each of them to meteoritic success, they’re not “dancing on their own,” nor were they ever in the first place. Armed with verve and gumption, they’re each shining examples of that age-old “show must go on” mantra, not despite their hardships, but in light of them.
“When truly bad things do happen,” our hosts summarize, as this musical mélange of artists has proven, “a phoenix always rises from the ashes.”
And in both bestowing this wisdom and presenting it through such a massive, lively, and thoughtful performance, they’ve proven to be pretty regal in their own right. In their opinion, they may never be royals, as they sing, in the sense of the artists they’ve regaled, but it’s clear to see, as the evening demonstrated, they commanded the room, took care of their audience, and “ruled our kingdom” for the night. They’re simply the best… and we’re royally better for it.
Kings and Queens, featuring Kelli Barrett and Jarrod Spector, played Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on October 13th and 14th, 2021. For more information, please visit www.54below.com.
Photos: Stephen Mosher