Jai Rodriguez: “A Thousand Sweet Kisses”
The OG “culture guy” of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, actor/singer Jai Rodriguez, made a spectacular return to the cabaret stage after an absence of 18 years with A Thousand Sweet Kisses at 54 Below. He had a career in theatre before the iconic realty TV show with acclaimed appearances in Rent and other musicals, but for better or worse it was Queer Eye that put him on the celebrity map and, even more defining, the gay celebrity map. While it was a successful stint on a hit show, it not only took him away from his first love, theatre and acting, but removed his considerable talents from the public’s perception of him so he had to fight to get that career back. Whatever he has been doing to rectify that situation, it worked! The show was a charming, hilarious, moving, intimate, beautifully performed success.
Each well-chosen song was so seamlessly woven into the patter and story he wanted to tell that the hour seemed like one monologue that was consistently involving and surprising. He is virtually unchanged from his time on the classic reality show. In fact, I would not be surprised to discover that there is a hidden closet somewhere housing a DVD of Queer Eye aging away in his stead. His pleasure at being back on stage and singing his heart out put the show on an even higher plane. At the same time, the show was as funny as any stand-up routine one could find in New York.
Starting to sing “Kiss” (Prince) walking through the house as if he couldn’t wait to get to the stage to start entertaining us, he moved into “This Kiss” (Annie Roboff, Robin Lerner, Beth Nielsen Chapman) and the medley was an upbeat welcome providing a de facto title song for the show. It was immediately apparent that he had the perfect accompanist as pianist Drew Wutke’s sizzling artistry drove the song with irresistible energy.
Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” offered a nicely phrased, personal contrast to the explosive opening. Family proved to be a recurring theme for the evening, underlined by the presence of relatives in the audience, in particular his aunt, who seemed to be the kind of supportive adult every gay boy wishes they had when growing up. Her introduction led to a story about his mother’s connection with a married man that brought Rodriguez into the world. Imagining his parents meeting, he scored their romance/seduction with “Saving All My Love for You” (Michael Masser, Gerry Goffin), brought to pulsing life by both his sensual, smokey lower register and his assured falsetto.
Reprising his appearance in the Equity Fights AIDS concert version of Hair, he revealed a bawdy, naughty side to his persona that seemed to delight him as much as it did the audience as he sang “Sodomy” (Galt McDermot, James Rado, Gerome Ragni). As if to underline this change in direction, it was followed by Sherry Vine’s hilariously dirty new lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” renamed “How I Blew Ya.” If ever a song was worthy of skewering, this was it, and it was completely on target and hysterical. Between verses he recounted his adventures in dating over the years, and he had such good clean fun with his dirty jokes and punchlines and memories that only the faintest of hearts could have been bothered.
He moved on to his own more realistic romantic history with a sparkling Taylor Swift medley that not only showed off his winning way with pop songs, but the theatrical potential for Swift. Rodriguez’s conversational delivery highlighted natural, well-crafted lyrics that could easily be Broadway bound. Telling secrets out of school (and defying an NDA no doubt), he recounted a funny tale of one particular “straight guy” who waivered (or tried to). Calling him “Mr. Jones” to protect the innocent (and the guilty), set up “Me and Mrs. Jones” (Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, Cary Gilbert) beautifully. A spectacular, decades-spanning Broadway medley including Funny Girl, In the Heights, and Dear Evan Hansen, was proof positive of his “seaworthiness” for a return to the boards.
His confessional resume of romance continued with his affair with a stripper/karaoke singer much more talented at the former than the latter. He moved on to more positive revelations with a beautiful, country-ish song, “Wanted” (Troy Verges, Hunter Hayes), that was new to me, but lovely. “Home” (Charlie Smalls, from The Wiz) might seem an odd choice, but he made it his own and applied it to his feelings about being back at 54 Below and in NYC. Part of the homecoming was a reminiscence of Rent, memorialized by “I’ll Cover You” (Jonathan Larsen), ably assisted by guest star Orfeh, in a rousing 11 o’clock number. Following legitimately humble, heartfelt thanks, he closed with Jim Brickman’s “Beautiful as You,” a moving good night to a grateful audience. His encore (at the insistence of Wutke) was an honest-to-god standard, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” (Harry Ruby, Bert Kalmar, Oscar Hammerstein II), adding yet another stylistic triumph to his performing arsenal, and giving the crowd a lovely, romantic send-off. It was the perfect thousandth sweet kiss of the night.
Being present at A Thousand Sweet Kisses was like having a conversation with an old friend over drinks, catching up on what life had held for him. Jai Rodriguez was that down-to-earth, while at the same time being every inch a sparkling, accomplished star. I trust we will not have to wait 18 years for another stellar visit.
Presented at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., Oct. 26-28, 2023.
About the Author
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?”