David Vernon’s new show is terrific. Before I elaborate, I’d like to back up to 2005, when I was introduced to his artistry through his CD “By Myself…” I was taken with his voice—pure, ethereal, hauntingly beautiful. I was struck by his eclectic musical taste, embracing such different worlds as Dietz & Schwartz, Michel Legrand, Édith Piaf, Randy Newman, Stephen Schwartz, Gabriel Fauré, and Howard Blake, some songs familiar, some new to me, songs that were dramatic, atmospheric, even exotic. And these qualities were paralleled by his interpretations. Later that year, he presented a one-off cabaret show. The virtues that had so impressed me listening to his recording were all there, but the show, itself, was uneven.
Over the years that followed, I watched as he explored different formats and different concepts. While the results continued to be uneven, through it all he remained true to the core sensibilities that made him him. He was clearly not like the other boys (and sometimes just a teeny bit not quite of this planet) but there was always something fascinating, genuine, and endearing about him, and something inherently worthy in his work.
Now we arrive at his latest offering, on view at Don’t Tell Mama. He has come through this past decade of exploration and experimentation with a more varied and expressive artistic palette. Where in the past he was on occasion a tad overly stylized, now real feelings come through; if he was sometimes a little too delicate, now there is fire; his approach might at times have been a little too precious, now he shows grit; and some of his performances were marked by too much of a sameness, now his interpretations are filled with rhythmic and dramatic contours and contrasts. What’s more, he is in greater command of his artistry, using the many colors on his palette selectively and specifically. Far from being uneven, this show is an exhilarating experience.
It’s called “Broadway My Way”—and it is, indeed, his way, for though you’ve likely heard many of the selections before, I daresay you’ve not heard interpretations quite like Vernon’s. Each song has been freshly considered; the result is that each song makes a clear, sometimes unexpected, statement. For example, in his interpretation of “Never Has Seen Snow” (Harold Arlen, Truman Capote, from House of Flowers), the innocent island girl is quite ready to grow up.
Other songs go on a journey through a changing landscape of emotions and attitudes—such as “What Kind of Fool Am I?” (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, Stop the World – I Want to Get Off), which starts out as introspective curiosity and develops into a matter of considerable urgency. “Who Will Buy?” (Lionel Bart, Oliver!), “I Don’t Care Much” (Kander & Ebb, Cabaret), and “Corner of the Sky” (Stephen Schwartz, Pippin) similarly advance in unanticipated directions. However, each unconventional choice has been thought through and is supported by both the lyric and Vernon’s vision.
Les Misérables (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Herbert Kretzmer) is represented by two selections: Vernon gives “Bring Him Home” so heavenly a rendition that it is right up there with the “God on high” he is singing to, and he gives “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” a set-up that imparts uncommon poignancy and relevance to the song. Perhaps the masterpiece of the evening, the piece that demonstrates the depth and scope of Vernon’s talent, is his interpretation of “Greatest Star of All” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, Christopher Hampton, Sunset Boulevard). The heroine worship that permeates the song is palpable in Vernon’s voice, his eyes, his gestures, his attitude—in every aspect of his performance and every fiber of his being. This is dazzling work.
At the first performance, a couple of songs simply stopped, rather than ending decisively and purposefully, and Vernon’s take on “Wicked Little Town” (Stephen Trask, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) needed more development. I fully expect these problems to have been corrected when the show returns in October. From start to finish, music director Alex Leonard accompanied at the piano with his characteristic mastery and grace.
With this show, David Vernon fulfills an 11-year-old promise, and does so gloriously. He is a compelling, highly distinctive artist and, now, also a savvy showman. That beats the hell out of being like the other boys.
“Broadway My Way,”
Don’t Tell Mama – May 29, October 9