As Jason Robert Brown prepares for what promises to be his breakthrough year on Broadway, he has stopped in for a week at 54 Below through Nov. 23. He brings along songs from The Bridges of Madison County (which previews at the Schoenfeld Jan. 2014) and Honeymoon in Vegas (which will no doubt appear as soon as a theatre can be found, and which has already been anointed a major hit by New York's most powerful theatre critic).
Brown, of course, is the Hal Prince protégé who burst on the scene in 1998 at the age of 28 with the Tony Award-winning score for Parade, but whose subsequent visits with Urban Cowboy and 13 have been inauspicious. Another musical, The Last Five Years, had an unsuccessful run when it premiered Off-Broadway in 2002 but has had a healthy afterlife, including a Second Stage revival last April and a forthcoming film adaptation.
Brown has remained constantly active for the last 15 years, and Vegas (which played a tryout at the Paper Mill Playhouse in October) demonstrated that he has learned how to make effective use of his composing and lyric-writing talents.
For the week's stint, Brown has assembled a sampler of songs old and new. He is accompanied by singers Whitney Bashor, Morgan Karr and Dan'yelle Williamson. His small band, which goes under the name The Caucasian Rhythm Kings, includes Gary Sieger on guitar, Randy Landau on bass and Jamie Eblen on drums. Brown drives the act from the piano.
The evening took off immediately with a rousing group rendition of "The New World" from Songs for a New World. Brown followed this himself, singing "I Love Betsy" from Honeymoon in Vegas. ("Just like Jay-Z and Beyoncé," the hero sings in his laugh-out-loud lyric, "I will make her my fiancée.") Also from that show comes the heroine's opening solo, "Anywhere But Here," nicely sung by Bashor. Next up was Williamson with "The Lamest Place in the World" (from 13), after which Karr sang one of the songs Brown interpolated into the quickly-forgotten Urban Cowboy, "It Don't Get Better Than This." At this point the act moved into high gear with two songs from The Bridges of Madison County. Brown sang "It All Fades Away," which should instantly take its place on the composer's "best song" list when the show opens. Bashor, who will play a featured role in the show, countered with a second winner, "Another Life."
Brown and his combo followed with the instrumental highlight of the act, "Break Me Blues," which was equaled by Williamson's delivery of "I Send My Love." Karr then topped it all with the wildly vibrant "Advice to the Playaz." Shakespeare, that is; for the 50th Anniversary bash at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, MN, this spring, Brown took Hamlet's "advice to the players" speech and set it on its contemporary ear. Karr, a replacement in the Broadway production of Spring Awakening, sang it trippingly on the tongue, all right.
Brown finished the show with "Caravan of Angels" — a love song written for his 10th anniversary — and a group rendition of "A Little More Homework" from 13. For a traditional encore, the composer gave a rousing impression of "Moving Too Fast" from The Last Five Years.
Brown followed this with a highly untraditional encore, first dismissing the band and singers and begging us to hold for a moment of silence at the end of the song. "Twenty-Six Names" ("All Things in Time") is a memorial to the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, just eleven months ago. It was a stunning, heartfelt, and important end to an otherwise high-flying musical evening with Brown.