As readers of this column know, I tend to focus exclusively on the women in the theatre and cabaret worlds. Since I’m at sea, though, I figure — excuse the pun — “anything goes.” So, today’s column will pay tribute to the talented guys on board the Norwegian Dawn, namely Billy Porter and Darius de Haas.
Before we get to the talent, a bit about Day Five on the cruise ship. We reached the Bahamas around 9:30 AM, and small ferry like boats took those who wanted to Great Stirrup Bay, where vacationers could frolic in the sun, swim in the beautiful waters, play volleyball and enjoy a live band and barbecue. The last tender back to the ship left at 5 PM, and we began cruising again around 6 PM.
The entertainment highlight for July 15 was Billy Porter’s concert in the Stardust Theatre. Rosie O’Donnell — who met Porter while they were co-starring in the most recent revival of Grease! — introduced the singer, saying, “He sings with his heart and has the voice of God.” It’s an apt description for the performer, whose vocal range is phenomenal. Though he tends to sing into the stratosphere, it’s the middle part of his voice that I find most beautiful, a rich, golden sound.
Porter began his concert with Kander and Ebb’s “And the World Goes ‘Round,” building to a stunning, belty climax. The evening featured a mix of theatre tunes, gospel numbers and three songs written by Porter himself. One of the highlights was Porter’s simple rendition of Violet’s “Let It Sing,” which was especially moving. The actor said that he tries to create shows that reflect what is happening in the world at the time. He explained that, of late, he has been thinking about the U.S. soldiers who are risking their lives for us overseas. “It’s time for them to come home,” said Porter, who then dedicated Les Misérables’ “Bring Him Home” to all the soldiers currently on duty. It was a touching, ethereal rendition of the Les Miz anthem.
Porter followed with a roof-raising version (albeit a truncated one) of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” paying homage to Jennifer Holliday by imitating her various vocal mannerisms. He then explained that he became obsessed with Dreamgirls when he was 12 years old and saw the cast perform on the annual Tony Awards telecast. “They were doing something I never thought I could do, but when I heard Jennifer Holliday sing, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Porter also became obsessed with the music of Stephen Sondheim at an early age, and described his audition a few years ago for the revival of Into the Woods. He had been called in to audition for the role of the Baker, and after the audition he was told that he had too much “pizzazz” for the role; however, they were possibly interested in having a man play the crooked-fingered Witch, eventually played in the revival by Vanessa Williams. Porter then delivered a stunning “Last Midnight,” and it’s a shame he didn’t get to play the role on Broadway.
One of the more emotional moments of Porter’s hour-long show followed, a dedication to his wheelchair-bound mother who is on the cruise with him. “A Momma Like Mine” preceded the three tunes he had written, and Porter closed his show with the theme from the “First Wive’s Club,” “Love Is on the Way.”
With the audience still on its feet, Porter returned for a terrific rendition of “Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George. Thankfully, some of these songs will be found on Porter’s upcoming recording, due in stores around Thanksgiving.
DARIUS DE HAAS
Like Billy Porter, Darius de Haas also possesses one of the rangiest and most powerful voices in the musical theatre today. I still remember his thrilling vocals in the Paper Mill’s production of Stephen Schwartz’s Children of Eden. De Haas will participate in this weekend’s “Broadway Belters” concert, hosted by Seth Rudetsky. I had the chance to chat with de Haas a few days ago. That brief interview follows:
Question: How did you get involved with the cruise?
Darius de Haas: Well, [Seth Rudetsky] called me up during a time where it seemed like I had nothing planned for the month. Then, Seth, along with two other people from different organizations, called me to do various things, and it all happened at once. I got “Lyrics and Lyricists,” this and Williamstown all in the same week. [Seth] said that there were one or two slots available, and he was just trying to get clearance.
Question: What night are you performing?
Darius: Saturday. I’m going to sing “I Am Changing.” We were just trying to figure out what to do, pouring through things in my own repertoire, and I’ve never sung “I Am Changing” for anything. Of course, I love the song and we all love [Dreamgirls]. I’ve never done it, and thought it would be fun. We just rehearsed it a couple of hours ago. We’re rehearsing in the Stardust Theatre; they’re there now with Rosie, rehearsing for the opening of tonight’s “Variety Hour.” I went over a little earlier, and Gavin Creel and Jose Llana and Paul Castree are doing “Dreamgirls” together, the lovely Dreamgirls trio! And, of course, Seth has to do his all-time favorite fight scene, the firing of Effie. [Laughs.]
Question: What was your experience like at Williamstown?< BR> Darius: That was the “Cabaret and Main” series. Normally their tradition is of doing late-late night cabaret, after all the official shows are over, and it takes place on the Williams College campus, which is very lovely, in the area of the Berkshires and not too far from Tanglewood. I guess they used to do their cabarets in a pub or in an old church. But it’s become so popular — you get actors who aren’t necessarily known for singing . . . and they are having the time of their lives. They’ve had people like David Hyde Pierce, Andrea Martin, Tim Daly as well as [singers] Carol Woods, Jeanine LaManna, Sara Ramirez and Billy [Porter] . . . . So I headed out there, and I was doing some stuff from my Strayhorn album.
Question: Do you have another CD in the works?
Darius: I’m working on something currently now; it’s sort of in free form, whenever I can catch time in the studio. I’ve been recording stuff, some with just a piano, some with a trio. . . . My last album was the Billy Strayhorn album, and I want to do something different this time around — I might be covering some material, but I want to do some original things as well and really try and shop it to a label.
Question: Do you write as well?
Darius: I write a little bit, but I’m a little shy about it. I keep it very, very much under wraps, and I take it to very trusted friends of mine and say, “What do you think? What can we do with this?” I’m hoping if all goes well, I can have something out by the end of next year. I’m just sort of taking my time, and just been trying to steal time in the studio. I’ve been recording everything, standards, some show stuff. I’ve recorded a little bit of Adam Guettel’s music, some Rodgers and Hammerstein. I’ve been doing just a little bit of everything and will then see what I can use. Earlier this year, I also did a Stevie Wonder show at the “American Songbook Series” at Lincoln Center, and I want to get some of that stuff [on the CD, too] because we rearranged some of the Stevie Wonder songs.
Question: Are you related to the de Haas that’s in Caroline or Change?
Darius: Ayesha, yeah, she’s my sister. I’m so thrilled for her because she’s been working very hard and just trying to convince people that you can do more than what meets the eye, just trying to find that right fit. Because for every actor, there are 100 actors for that job.
Question: Do you have any other projects coming up?
Darius: I’ve been auditioning like a crazy person, and no one wants me. [Laughs.] I’ve been doing a lot of workshops, and actually it’s been good. I feel in my most reasonable mind, “Oh well, it’s okay since I’ve been called in for such diverse things. It just hasn’t been quite the right fit yet.” . . . So, back to the drawing board.
Tomorrow we're off to Nassau in the Bahamas, where we've been warned a few local churches will be protesting our arrival. Until then, though, happy sailing, and, of course, happy diva watching!