“The Free Residency”
Don’t Tell Mama – October 16, November 5, 27, December 3
“My soul is as open as the sky,” Jonathan Whitton sings at the top of his Don’t Tell Mama show, “The Free Residency.” And he’s not kidding.
Whitton projects a rare level of emotional accessibility throughout the evening. There is an introspective quality about him, but he does not seem at all introverted. He wants to share his reveries with listeners. That opening number, the bluesy “Dreamin’” (Amos Lee), is a terrific song to start with. He and his music director—Aaron Jones, playing guitar—walk to the stage from the back of the room as they perform. Whitton smiles a warm, inviting smile and bends toward the audience like a flower stretching for sunlight.
The intensity of Whitton’s performance style reminds me of Mandy Patinkin, but Whitton is—blessedly—much more spare with his gesticulations. Still, there are times when he sings long passages with one hand clutching the fabric of his t-shirt as though steadying his heart. With many other singers, this would look pretentious or plain silly. But with Whitton it seems organic and genuine.
He demonstrates an easy poise, too. On the night I attended, during Whitton’s second or third number, a group of audience members got up to leave, mid-song. When that happens in a small room, it can of course be deadly—and these people were sitting right in front of the stage. It seemed apparent that they had come to the club for a different show, but how would the performer deal with this exodus? After completing the song, Whitton self-deprecatingly and humorously acknowledged the departure, noting ironically what a great start he was off to. “They really would have hated it about three minutes in,” he said; then he added, with the slightest hint of droll mischief, “They were here for the talent show.” Anyone who had not been on Whitton’s side before this moment was surely with him now.
“The Free Residency” is billed as “a concert experiment,” and is centered very loosely around the theme of “home.” Whitton, though, comments only briefly about how the songs are thematically relevant.
For me, the most successful segment of the evening by far involves three consecutive numbers early in the set. These selections do not constitute a medley, per se, but they follow one another closely, without a break for applause. The first is a classic: “Lazy Afternoon” (Jerome Moross, John Latouche). Whitton’s voice is smooth and warm. He savors the nature imagery in the lyrics and closes his eyes for an impossibly long stretch during Jones’s meandering-stream guitar interlude. His description of the dreamlike sylvan idyll is so concentrated that when he gets slightly playful on the lyric about “a tasty pitcher of tea,” it stirs the air—inspiring a unison giggle from the audience at the performance I attended.
Next comes—of all things—”A Britney Pairing”—two songs from the oeuvre of Britney Spears: “Gimme More” (Jim Beanz, Marcella “Ms. Lago” Araica, Nate “Danja” Hills, Keri Hilson) and “Toxic” (Cathy Dennis, Henrik Jonback, Christian Karlsson, Pontus Winnberg). Those in the audience who recognized these written-by-committee Spears songs began to laugh, hearing them out of context. But “A Britney Pairing” proves to be splendid little turn when performed by a fine singer like Whitton and delivered without electronic pop-single ornamentation. It’s angry and buzzing—like menacing killer bees swarming through Moross and Latouche’s Garden of Eden.
Resolution comes with the third number, James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine,” which features imagery that’s as rich in its way as that in the first of the three songs, only transformed by the violence done during the second. Whitton mines the lyrics for all their fuzzy heartache. “Why is everything so hazy?” he asks, alluding, it seems, to the “hazy afternoon” from the last stanza of the first song. Turns out it’s not a pitcher of tea that’s being sipped among the daisies in this song. The source of the current haze comes from a bottle.
The second half of Whitton’s show takes—or seems at first to take—a more traditional cabaret turn when Jones sets aside the guitar and moves to the piano for a few songs. The most experimental number in this part of the evening comes with Whitton’s take on Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” He uses the female point of view we all know from the spoken portion of the Peggy Lee recording (“…when I was a very little girl…”). This sets the audience up for an old-style camp fest, but Whitton instead barks out the lyrics as though he were narrating an existentialist’s nightmare. He keeps us guessing about his attitude: Is he looking for laughs or not? I actually liked the slightly dangerous ambiguity. (Whitton reminded me here of Justin Vivian Bond.) Perhaps having played Hedwig (in Hedwig and the Angry Inch) onstage has acclimated Whitton to this sort of transgender-friendly Performance Art approach.
The success of “The Free Residency” is due in great part to the largely unheralded contributions of Jones, who sings pleasing harmonies opposite Whitton and takes the vocal lead on one number. I would love to see these two work together in a show in which Jones plays an even greater role. In the meantime, I highly recommend “The Free Residency.” It’s one for your memory bank.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.