Before I go into the show that Jesse Luttrell performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below with the Fred Barton Broadway Band, let me digress into a bit of metaphorical art criticism. Imagine, if you will, that you have been invited to view the work of an exciting new painter at a gallery show of fourteen of his latest creations. You walk in and see that the first painting is done entirely in red paint. It is a sparkling, electrifying, eye-popping hue—as fine a red as any you have seen in other galleries. You move on to the second picture and discover that although it has a different frame, the piece is once again entirely in that shade of red. You continue on to the third, the fourth, and all of the other paintings—all red. By the time you get to the fourteenth offering you are ready to get out of that gallery. On your way out, you look once again at the first painting and realize that even that first intriguing work has lost what interest it had on first viewing.
As Fred Barton conducted his band from his seat at the piano, leading them in the intro of “Hey There, Good Times” (Cy Coleman, Michael Stewart), video screens on both sides of the stage lit up with childhood photos of Luttrell in cute outfits, presumably giving us a glimpse of the origins of a born entertainer. Luttrell then entered through the house singing, guns blazing, thrilling the crowd with the undeniable force and presence of his performance, and gave us what might be the best version of this quasi-hit from I Love My Wife I have ever heard. The song built to a huge finish, with the singer holding the last note for what seemed like a minute as the band swelled around him and he punctuated the ending with a physical punch or fist-pump into the air, head thrown back. “Make Someone Happy” (Jule Styne, Comden & Green) followed, with the same dynamic, the same held note and punch in the air at the end. As he began his third number, “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (Al Hoffman, Walter Kent, Mann Curtis), I realized that I didn’t have to hear him sing it—I knew already what it would be, down to that same ending. He did not disappoint, or, rather, he did. Each and every song not only displayed that same energy, but also that same ending. Was there no one around to call attention to that fact?
When he began “When October Goes” (Barry Manilow, Johnny Mercer), a haunting ballad that could have allowed him to show another side of his talent and personality, I had hopes that I might be in store for at least one surprise, one variation. It started, if not softly, at least at a lower wattage than the previous songs, but soon blew up into empty bombast to match the rest of the show. Three songs by Peter Allen made me think that perhaps the show was an elaborate try-out for a tour of The Boy from Oz; everything had that audition level intensity. His physicality here, and elsewhere, was oddly self-conscious and a far cry from Allen’s joyous freedom on stage. His closing number, “What Kind of Fool Am I?”(Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse), offered one last opportunity to allow some real feeling and emotion to reveal itself, but instead it gave us just more of the same.
Barton’s work, especially in the horn arrangements, was exemplary throughout and would easily have supported a more varied attack on some of the songs had the singer decided to go there. One, or two, or three of these big numbers might have been standouts in a show that offered more variety. Jesse Luttrell is a very talented performer with a much larger palette at his disposal; that he chose to present this show in such a monotone is quite disappointing.
Feinstein’s/54 Below – January 27