by John Weatherford
Brian d’Arcy James return engagement at 54 Below is aptly named Under the Influence. “Take it as it Comes” was the first rendering of what would be an evening of pop songs with a BDJ twist. Mr. James informed the enthusiastic crowd that after having reviewed tapes of his previous 54 Below show two things became extremely apparent. First, his musicians, led by Dan Lipton, are the best a performer could ever hope for and, second, he yapped way too much. He stated that he was determined not to tell all the stories of his life no matter how fascinating they may be.
BDJ (I hope Mr. James does not mind my abbreviation) is a consummate performer and has his gift of storytelling down to a science. I would not call this show a venture into the world of cabaret. Instead, I would call it a concert of pop tunes with one slight (monumental might be a better word) difference. This pop concert is performed by a master of the art of interpretation. As a result, the lyrics are given the attention and respect that any good story should receive. DBJ wraps his heart and soul around these “stories” and fills the room with the power and passion that we have all grown to expect from this gentleman’s work.
Smartly directed by Carl Forsman, DBJ travails through his selection of material with a positive expectation of where he is taking his audience. From the works of Gabe Dixon, Sting, Harry Connick Jr., Adele and Billy Joel, to name a few, BDJ makes each song personal and purposeful. He admits that, for some time, he did not think that Billy Joel was someone who should be taken seriously. But, as the years passed and his understanding of life grew, he realized that Billy Joel is profoundly important and his stories, through song, are deeply significant.
Selecting any particular high-light from the evening could only be done by personal preference not by quality or some blaze of musical insight. For me the high-light would be the encore number from the latest version of Godspell written by Stephen Schwartz. “Beautiful City” blended well with the other selections arranged and conducted by BDJ’s musical director Dan Lipton. However, it had a bit more of the Broadway feel of which I am more partial. Needless to say, this show is a delight and should not be missed.
One more thing is crystal clear about BDJ. He adores his musicians and his respect for them and their contribution to his show is constant. The musicians assembled by Mr. Lipton, on piano, are Damien Bassman on drums, Greg Joseph on percussion, Nicholas D’Amato on Bass, Erik Della Penna on guitar, Paul Vercesi on saxophone and Bob Millikan on trumpet.
54 Below is a beautiful space with a great staff. It has the reputation of providing some of the best Broadway performers a venue, allowing them to share their more personal passions and talents. BDJ is one of those Broadway Titans who has taken the time to put together a big show for an intimate space that obviously was more costly to produce than it will most likely recoup. But this does not seem to be the objective. It appears to me that BDJ wants to give his audience an evening to remember and, that, my friends, he does. Congratulations Brian D’Arcy James. You are the best.
There are two more chances to see this delightful show. Friday, September the 6th at 8pm and Saturday, September 7th also at 8pm. Reservations can be made at www.54Below.com 646 476-3551
254 West 54th Street (Cellar) NYC
*Photos: Russ Weatherford