Returning to Broadway, Harry Connick Jr. chooses his muse wisely and well, taking the stage in an attractively modern, multi-media setting to celebrate that most sophisticated of the American songbook’s founders, Cole Porter.
At its frequent best, Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter, opening tonight at the Nederlander Theatre, pairs Porter’s songwriting genius with Connick’s superb musicianship, supple, ear-pleasing vocals and a brash confidence that pushes the music from the comfort of classic pop into bolder, jazzier terrain. Connick, with his years on American Idol, movie screens and concert stages, is certainly the most popular interpreter of American standards, and he takes fine advantage of that good will, unafraid to slip in an occasional dissonance or to slow down a vocal like a train creeping to its halt. Where Connick leads, his audience knows to follow.
It helps, of course, to entice with some of the greatest popular songs ever written (and a terrific 25-piece orchestra). Connick’s tribute to Porter – the singer also wrote and directed this production – doesn’t disappoint in its musical selections. Among the treasures: “Anything Goes,” “Just One Of Those Things,” “True Love,” “Begin The Beguine,” “It’s Alright With Me,” “I Love Paris,” “You Do Something To Me,” “Mind If I Make Love To You,” “Why Can’t You Behave,” “In the Still of the Night” and “So In Love.” (Connick tosses his own “Take Her To The Mardi Gras” into the mix for good measure).
On a gorgeously designed (by Beowulf Boritt and Alexis Distler) and lit (Ken Billington) nightclub-style stage, with jazz moderne jigsaw puzzle panels as backdrop to catch any number of images and videos (projection design by Boritt and Caite Hevner), Connick guides us through a somewhat potted Porter biography. Better is a segment in which Connick cleverly delivers a music composition and orchestration lesson, making nifty audio-visual use of the projections and the orchestra to demonstrate Porter’s immense talent.
The multi-media approach doesn’t always work quite so well – the lovely, big-band-style staging is occasionally augmented with moving sets that replicate New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, Connick’s book-crammed writing room, and a dark alley (on “Love For Sale”). The changes – with a couple exceptions – aren’t so much intrusive as unnecessary, while scripted interactions between Connick and his band members bring the swift-moving, 90-minute intermissionless show to a stutter. (One other small gripe: the production’s sound periodically had the orchestra, good as it is, overpowering Connick’s vocals and piano.)
A pre-curtain recorded announcement asks audience members not to share too many of the show’s surprises on social media, and Connick does indeed have a few tricks up his tuxedoed sleeve that justify the request. I assume he doesn’t want details shared about the show’s visual component, but the more rewarding of the show’s unexpected moments are musical: Connick’s gutsy vocal phrasing, his angular piano embellishments and orchestrations that pull towards Bill Evans without losing sight of Nelson Riddle. Few performers so comfortably land the sweet spot between audience expectations and the artist’s own adventuresome tastes. Like his best moments as judge on American Idol, Connick shares his knowledge with such plain-talk enthusiasm we don’t even know we’ve been schooled.
In fact, enthusiasm is as good a word as any for the late-in-show number when Connick – and spoiler alert, I suppose – dancer Aaron Burr tap dance a duet atop one very long piano. Connick, breathing maybe a bit too hard, playfully lets the younger man have the moment, a show of spirit that marks this entire celebration, from one music man to another.
The three-week limited engagement of Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter began previews on Saturday, December 7, and opens tonight at the Nederlander Theatre on Broadway.