by Matt Smith
“You were all promised nothing but stupidity tonight, and I am delivering it in spades.”
Such is the witty, spot-on remark made by the effervescent, theatrical jack-of-all-trades Robbie Rozelle, midway through his romp of a show at intimate supper club Feinstein’s/54 Below.
A standout graphic designer with Broadway Records, and producer of many a Feinstein’s/54 Below show in his own right, Rozelle makes his grand return to the venue, this time trading the sidelines for the spotlight, in a return engagement of his own much-lauded solo show: Songs from Inside My Locker.
The title refers to those universally turbulent high school years, which, for him, meant finding himself shoved into the titular storage space for unabashedly singing showtunes in the halls; the set list, therefore, taps into the songs and shows that made up his youth, and how his unwavering determination to stick with his love for all things musical theatre helped him to grow from within, find his way, and ultimately, as he reveals in a brutally honest moment, save his life.
But that doesn’t mean the evening’s a downer, on any count. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Aided by members of Two Drink Minimum, his swingin’ six-piece band led by incomparable musical director/pianist Josh D. Smith, they fill the room with a rich, full sound reminiscent of the big bands of old, accentuating each number even further beyond what Rozelle already presents through his ever-ebullient performance. Sure, he was bullied as a kid, but as these stories often turn out, it’s made him a better person. Now, he emerges from his locker, stronger than ever, reveling in every moment, proud to sing these songs for an audience who’ll appreciate them. And sure enough, that’s what he’ll do… he’ll suck you in from minute 1 and for the remaining 89, you’ll be transfixed by the whole eternally incandescent package… and there’s no doubt you’ll laugh, cry and ultimately love every minute of it.
What’s more, given Rozelle’s personality, you can bet the show is chock-full of humor, dusted with just the right amount of good-natured snarky sass as only he can deliver.
In short, there’s simply nothing he and his band can’t — and don’t — do, bringing lesser-known theatrical gems forward and into the limelight (“The Kid” from the show of the same name, and Best Little Whorehouse’s “Change in Me” among the highlights), while twisting and turning the standards on their head, resulting in quite the successful array of revamps (his dastardly delicious twist on Annie’s “Little Girls” is one for the ages, while his spin on Wizard of Oz staple “If I Only Had a Brain” will make you melt!!)
Throw in the dead-on impressions of Norm Lewis and Carol Channing, a perfectly-placed dig at the perpetually postponed Bye Bye Birdie Live!, a “just-for-kicks” duet between sousaphone and kazoo, and a ROFL semi-love letter to famed casting director Bernie Telsey, and you’ll see why the evening exudes pure fun, light and joy from beginning to end.
But amid all this wackiness and self-induced buffoonery, the real compelling element — the one that genuinely sucks you in and shakes you to the core — is that beneath all this is a pertinent, deep-rooted theme of hope.
Sequestered in the background for the majority of the evening, Rozelle brings it to the forefront when he shifts the mood and moves the room with an incredibly heartfelt personal story.
After unknowingly accepting a Facebook request to connect with his high school bully, he found himself questioning his morals when said bully called for a truce, detailing how a life-changing event had forced him to re-examine how he treated people. With the tables turned, Rozelle admits he was initially hesitant to give in, but decided — again, given his personality — to teach “love and dignity and respect” in his reconciliation.
It was an astonishingly bold and brave move — on both their parts, for that matter, with the bully having the courage to finally step up and step forward for good — but one that gave us a fundamental feeling of hope as a result.
As Rozelle so eloquently relays, “the world’s a dumpster fire,” and don’t we know it. While we’ll never really be able to fully relate to the humiliation Robbie endured in his youth, we’re all feeling, much like he felt in high school, somewhat helpless and uncertain.
But this aforementioned account proves there are good people out there and there are not-so-good people who are willing to change. It can happen. It can be done. It’s just up to those who are willing to do it.
Again, it’s very much the message we need right now, and we’re ever so glad that people like Robbie Rozelle are here to deliver it, consistently combatting the onslaught of negativity with peppier “jokes and Jerry Herman songs.” He’s the voice of resistance, and we all feel better having spent the evening with him.
Simply put, it’s because of this “sassy guy in the center square,” that we have the courage and confidence to keep on jammin’ tomorrow… so long as we heed his warning and “never jam today.”
Robbie Rozelle: Songs from Inside My Locker was presented at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on October 28th. Bonnie Milligan (Kinky Boots’ National Tour) and Jack Parton served as guest artists. For more information, visit www.54below.com or www.robbierozelle.com, and/or follow @divarobbie on social media.