Within moments of the first song, the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” (Elton John, Jason Sellards, Scott Hoffman) in Brian Letendre’s delightful return to the New York stage at 54 Below, it was obvious to everyone that he is a dancer, in spite of what the lyrics proclaimed. The swirl of the mirror ball overhead fit the occasion perfectly. His body was so in tune with the music that even stillness seemed choreographed. On the small stage, made smaller by his extremely talented quintet of musicians, his movements were contained but their energy filled the room as he filled the show with stories and music from his youth and from his starry time on the Broadway stage.
He was an ingratiating, magnetic presence on a fast and funny and beautifully arranged selection of songs that I might otherwise say was a bit too “medley-heavy” if not for the fact that he made each grouping special and made each one work. He hasn’t performed in many years (having fled the uncertain world of being a performer for the more stable realm of real estate) so he had a lot he wanted to say and a lot of ground he wanted to cover.
After a brief hello and a nod of gratitude to the effusive reception, he moved into a generation-spanning medley of “Beautiful Day” (Michael Bublé) and “The Best Is Yet to Come” (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh) that reflected both his taste and his nerve. A dizzying tribute to the girl singers who shaped him started with Laura Brannigan’s “Gloria” (Giancarlo Bigazzi, Umberto Tozzi) and included Tiffany, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar, Debbie Gibson, with a connective thread of the theme from the animated TV series, Jem and the Holograms (talk about a deep cut!). He gave each snippet its rightful moment before moving on to the next, and somehow worked in Phantom of the Opera seamlessly. It left the audience smiling on a nostalgic high.
Recalling his love affair with George Gershwin that began when he was cast in Crazy for You, he dazzled with a classic take on “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” (lyrics, Ira Gershwin) brimming with joy and sophistication. Staying in theatre mode, he then shared his one and only audition medley of “On the Street Where You Live” (Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner) and “Another Hundred People” (Stephen Sondheim) easily proving to the audience why he used it over and over. A memory of his time in Urban Cowboy brought a lovely “If I Told You Now” (Jason Robert Brown) that highlighted the singer’s thoughtful phrasing and dramatic heft. The Billy Joel dance show, Movin’ Out, provided an impassioned “You’re My Home.” In all the razzle and the dazzle it was good to be reminded what a fine actor Letendre is.
Revealing what a special time he had being involved with the original Broadway cast of Mary Poppins, he jumped into a swirling, electric Disney medley that was a tour de force, complete with the “alphabet choreography” of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” (Robert B. Sherman, Richard M. Sherman) and an audience sing-along. The arrangement was constantly surprising with the melody of one classic from one show underscoring an entirely different song from an entirely different show. The band—Dena Tauriello on drums, Carl Carter on bass, Kristy Norter on reeds, Marc Malsegna on guitar, and music director Will Van Dyke on piano—outdid themselves on this number but were terrific the entire night.
Returning to Sondheim, a warm and winning pairing of “Nothing’s Gonna Harm You” and “No One is Alone” brought us back to Letendre’s heart after the flash of the Disney medley. A bit of personal philosophy informed his closing medley with an exuberant “Make Your Own Kind of Music” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil) morphing into Sara Bareilles’s “Brave,” which was just the right note upon which to end the show. The totally warranted encore proved yet again that a good singer can make any song their own. Brian Letendre chose the standard, “Time After Time” (Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn) and sang it with an investment of emotion and intelligence that defied time. It could easily have been written today rather than in 1947; there was not a cobweb to be found. It was a fitting last note to a performance that was fresh and exciting and impressive throughout. I can only hope that he brings it back soon.
Presented at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., NYC, January 27, 2023.
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”