Once upon a time, Chris Isaacson Presents brought together four fabulous fellas and one femme phenom for one unforgettable evening of Upright Cabaret at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. Assigned the task of shaping and shepherding this venture is stage veteran, Tony Award nominee, director Sam Harris. The gentle rogue in charge of keeping the tunes twinkling and the toes tapping would fall to musical director Brent Crayon. The show would start with a grand ensemble number to put the audience in an empire state of mind and evolve into a night of tour de force solo performances. And this magical musical night would be called, New York’s Finest: The Leading Men of Broadway.
New York’s Finest was further privileged to have the opulent Frenchie Davis (Dreamgirls, Aint Misbehavin’) as the mistress of ceremonies for the evening. Ms. Davis would preside over four celebrated boys of Broadway whose works include Wicked, The Color Purple, Million Dollar Quartet and Hair. Though each performer is unique and wildly talented, I tend to remember each by, what else, their shoes.
…and straight leg jeans was my introduction to David Burnham. Unbeknownst to me before the New York’s Finest Event, Burnham’s voice is one immediately identifiable as one of the finest voices to grace a Broadway stage. Burnham tackles falsetto with an impressive combination of confidence and skill. “Il Mondo Era Vuoto”, the Italian ballad from The Light in the Piazza brought forth a swell of romance to the evening. Didn’t understand a word of it. Nevertheless, Burnham’s performance, in duet with a masterful violinist, was quite engaging. David’s Wicked mash-up of “As Long As You're Mine/Defying Gravity” was rendered with equal drama and exuberant. A truly lovely performance.
I’ve often noted the two types of performers that one tends to find in musical theatre. There are those who can sang, and there are those who give a great performance while singing. Lovely Ace Young is clearly the latter. His was the embodiment of unbridled joy and fun, performing “Grease Lightning” with effortless sex appeal. Young’s strength is his passion, his commitment and yes his singing voice; now he needs polish. Of course, stripping down to a loin cloth like he does for his Act II Hair Medley certainly can’t hurt.
After hearing just one verse, it’s obvious that Brandon Victor Dixon is a class act. Dixon channels the Genius of Soul as he rocks out with “What’d I Say.” There is an ease and refinement to his performance that is both comforting and enticing. That ease of versatility shows as he pivets from vintage R&B do-wop to the pensive and plaintiff “Being Alive” from the Sondheim musical Company. His voice is the kind that penetrates the center of your soul and just hangs out a while, resonating. There’s just something about Dixon that makes you wanna don your Sunday best; because he’s putting on his best for you.
The Country-boy-next-door who dresses up striped sneakers with a striped tie: that’s Levi. As the only performing musician of the night, Levi Kreis took to the keys and hammered out a taste of his Tony Award winning performance from Million Dollar Quartet - a rebel-rousing and yes electrifying “Whole Lotta Shaking Going On.” From gyrating, convulsing Jerry Lee Lewis to the sweet sounds of Stephen Sondheim, Kreis gives a nod to the first musical theater song he ever learned, in an intimate and moving performance of “Not While I’m Around.” (RIGHT in front of me… wow) Consistently pitch perfect and with the utmost sincerity, Levi can’t help but put a piece of his soul into every song; it’s kind of remarkable to witness.
Full Disclosure: I am a Kreister. And while I can assure you that I always retain a healthy critical objectivity, my respect and devotion towards Kreis as an entertainer deepens with every new performance I attend.
The production number before halftime was clearly Director’s Choice. Director Sam Harris throws the theatrics into overdrive with a colorful and hilarious rendition of “At the Ballet” from the Broadway classic A Chorus Line, featuring Burnham, Kreis and Young. With choreography no less! Words can hardly describe the spectacle. Well, maybe two words can, pink tutu. High marks to the dudes who donned a dress for their art; and for staying in pitch and in character during the deafening laughter.
Act II launches with Ace Young’s aforementioned mostly naked tribute to Hair, a wild and fun and appropriately irreverent number. Next David Burnham and Levi Kreis make for a powerful vocal pairing with the Wicked duet “For Good.” Brandon Victor Dixon delivers delicate melancholy in The Scottsboro Boys lullabye, “Go Back Home.” Gentlemen all, Well Done!
Then the evening got really interesting as our leading men took the stage in unison to give the audience a taste of their original works. Songwriters all, each performer offered material as distinctive and diverse in style and recitation as the performers themselves.
Young performed his heart-wrenching rock ballad, “I Wanna Fall In Love Again”. It was a performance clearly fed by the pain of a fresh wound. Kreis’ “Nothing at All,” delivers a lover’s ultimatum with the passion and angst that only a soul of the South can convey. Dixon’s “Open Anticipation” is a smart and elegant ballad, rich with sensual poetry and intricate lyrical syncopation. David Burnham ends the segment with his upbeat lollipop love song “Already Gone” putting the audience back in a whimsical mood. And, in the communal spirit of Broadway, everyone was there to sing back-up for whoever was being featured.
Diva in a Red Dress
Can I just say, mistress of ceremonies Frenchie Davis quite frankly owned the stage whenever she was on it. More than the filler between the leading men, Ms. Davis was majestic and charming, luminous and hilarious at exactly the right moments. Her interludes “It’s Raining Men” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” simultaneously tickled the funny bone and tantalized the ear. Her one musical measure of “My Story's Too Sad To Be Told” was ten seconds of utter comic genius. (Well Done Mr. Harris.) Her jaw-dropping rendition of my favorite Dreamgirls song was perfect, in performance and note. “I Am Changing” was the song of the night for me; and judging by the thunder and lightning Davis conjured, I think God agreed.
Now, in keeping with my vow of critical objectivity, here’s the not-so-perfect of the night. There were a few problems with Kreis’ mike, which was a shame given the beautiful performances he gave. For me, the back-up singers just weren’t in the same league as the headliners. I wonder if anyone else noticed. The transitions could have used more polish, and the finale could have used alot more polish. Finally, I was surprised and a little sad that there was no encore. But given that the production lost a performer in the eleventh hour and that every live production has its technical issues, I feel kinda silly knit-picking. But there is it.
The beauty of shows like New York’s Finest is that a person can go as a fan of one great artist, and leave a fan of four more. The beauty is that you can see a huge talent like David Burnham in a tutu or finally see Levi Kreis performing with a live band where he’s not tied down to his piano or be among the first to hear the Brandon Victor Dixon song that’s going to give John Legend a run for his money. The beauty is a one of a kind experience and a comfort in knowing the folks over at Chris Isaacson Presents are just ready and waiting to cook up another one – just for you.
Performance Photos courtesy of Jan Wasserman