At one point during the opening night performance of his show “Fly Up!” at The Duplex, Joshua Dixon mentioned how nervous he’d been all day in anticipation of making his solo cabaret debut. He needn’t have had any fears, for his show is nothing less than a triumph. Not only is it an exceptionally impressive debut, it is also an exceptionally impressive creation, masterful on all counts—as a show, with all that that entails (structure, song selection, arrangements, dialogue, flow, etc.), and with respect to Dixon’s superb performance.
The evening is structured into segments that trace key stages of Dixon’s life, from his childhood to the present day. There’s a segment based on his experience as a kid attending church with his Mormon family, one on his college escapades, another on his burgeoning interest in musical theatre, and one on his view as a gay man in a society that has not always been welcoming. Single songs separate the segments, and all of this is bookended by musical expressions that, one presumes, reflect Dixon’s personal point of view: at the top of the show, Scott Evan Davis’s “Cautiously Optimistic,” whose title reveals its stance, and at the end, Andrew Lippa’s “Leap,” which vigorously advocates embracing life and taking chances.
The components flow so seamlessly that you might be forgiven for not noticing the structure. Significantly, the segments tell their stories mainly through song, with not a lot of narration. Each segment is a mini-masterpiece—of concept, song selection, arrangement, and performance. The autobiographical patter is relatively brief, frequently funny, and mainly limited to establishing a theme or making a trenchant comment. The enterprise was directed by Gerry Geddes, and Steven Ray Watkins does double-duty as musical director and piano accompanist.
The Mormon segment comprises four songs: The first three are actual Mormon musical compositions: “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam” (Edwin O. Excell, Nellie Talbot), “Popcorn Popping” (Georgia W. Bello), and “I Hope They Call Me on a Mission” (Newel K. Brown). The first of these, quite straight, is a calculated set-up, then Dixon makes the next two come off as rather cute. The real payoff comes with the final song, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone’s hilarious “I Believe” (from Book of Mormon, of course), which regales us with some of the more, let’s say, fanciful beliefs of the Mormon church. Dixon does this very smartly: He mines all of the humor without ever overplaying it, without commenting on the preposterousness of what he purports to believe.
He tells of his college experiences through two unlikely song-mates: Cole Porter’s “Experiment,” which he performs with a sly almost-smile, and Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” which is overtly about mind-altering drugs. I’m positive I’ve never heard these two songs in the same evening, let alone paired. Three seemingly disparate songs are grouped to express the role that musical theatre has played in his life: Jimmy Webb’s “On a Stage,” “I’m Coming Out of My Shell” (Robert and Willie Reale), and Sondheim’s “Giants in the Sky.” Dixon’s views on the sociopolitical standing of gay people in America are presented in another trio of songs: Sondheim’s “There’s a Parade in Town,” Kander and Ebb’s “Married” (Dixon’s rendition is extremely touching), and Jerry Herman’s “Before the Parade Passes By.” I can’t emphasize enough how strong these segments are.
There’s more to say about Dixon’s artistry. His voice is a bright, attractive, resonant baritone. But even more important than that is the quality of his interpretations—no, not the quality, but more specifically, his approach to interpretation. He rarely, if ever, uses big gestures; indeed, he uses all gestures sparingly and selectively—and when he does gesture, it’s always organic, never presentational. Though much of the time he performs with his arms at his side, this choice never seems stiff, as it often does when other singers adopt that stance. The reason is that he conveys so much with his eyes and face, and what’s more, his interpretations are rooted deep within him, so that it’s as though his entire being were singing to us, which is far more eloquent than gestures. When he sings Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” his external manner may be reserved, but he’s clearly a person romantically obsessed, his feelings percolating a fraction of a millimeter below the surface. Very few singers are able to communicate such a richness of thought and emotion with such stillness; Mabel Mercer, Julie Wilson, and Steve Ross come to mind.
“My God,” you may be thinking, “was everything that good? Was there nothing that could be improved?” Actually, I do have a piece of constructive criticism: He should refrain from inserting the word “for” extraneously a couple of times in his encore song, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.” Other than that, nada.
But I have one more observation to make. Throughout the evening, Dixon projects sweetness and decency. Do these qualities add to his artistic strengths? Possibly not. But do they cloak the evening in warmth and good will and enhance the emotional impact his show has on us as human beings? Oh, yes. Definitely yes.
The Duplex – May 9, June 22, 30