Broadway review

The missing magic in Harry Connick Jr.’s Broadway tribute to Cole Porter

The Daily Beast

December 13, 2019

In Harry Connick Jr.’s Broadway show, what should be a richly varied voyage around Cole Porter’s genius feels like a tough, grinding plod. Plus, a ghost story in “The Thin Place.”

Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter

It’s one thing to claim emphatically that Cole Porter is important to you, as superstar Harry Connick Jr. does on stage and also in the Playbill for his Broadway show, Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter. It’s another to rise to the challenge to filter that devotion through a performance. (There is also an album, True Love, now released.)

In printed words, the multi-Grammy and Emmy award-winning Connick Jr. compares the imminent rising of the curtain at the Nederlander Theatre to “the waving of the green flag to start a car race,” the music of Porter being “the Monaco Grand Prix of the entertainment world: challenging, thrilling, and never afraid to take an unexpected turn.”

“Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a wild ride,” Connick Jr. promises. Margo Channing’s “Fasten your seat belts—it’s going to be a bumpy night!” would be more apposite.

Sad to say, the passion promised in the Playbill, the love and reverence Connick Jr. claims to feel for Porter, doesn’t translate or come alive on stage (the performance runs through Dec. 29). It flickers, but never roars, and often just feels lost and aimless. The big band, led by Andrew Fisher, sounds great. The dancer Aaron Burr gives us an amazing tap show. But it is Connick Jr. who seems off-kilter and disjointed in his performance. The very opposite of joy and reverence flows from him. The 90-minute concert feels like work, and hard work at that.

The puzzle of this exercise begins with a film projected on to the back wall of the theater before Connick. Jr appears. This shows a cartoon of a huge grey statue of Porter, erected in a field allegedly in Porter’s birthplace, Peru, in Indiana. Connick Jr. approaches this statue with a carefree verve, climbing Porter’s flank and then entering his body through his ear.

It not only feels invasive, but it says a lot about this show in its unsubtlety—a kind of basic-level co-option of someone else’s work that doesn’t rise to anything else.

The video ends, and Connick Jr. himself appears. He kind of ambles out, which could be a charming way to begin a show, especially a tribute one as it shows (I thought initially) a humility in consideration of its subject.

But soon Connick Jr. feels as if he is playing to a camera rather an audience; and his warm words in Porter’s memory feel stilted. He wants this to feel intimate, but it feels the opposite—the concert feels cavernous and our connection with the performer tentative at best. His appreciation of Porter, I am sure, is genuine; somehow the concert fails to convey it.

If, as Connick Jr. says, some in the audience don’t know who Porter is, his very basic biographical notes are not going to elucidate much; and they don’t deepen the understanding of Porter, whatever your knowledge levels.

And so to the songs. The theater was filled with Connick Jr.’s fans, and perhaps it was just the night I was there, but this critic didn’t feel that they were feeling it. Sure, there were whoops—for certain songs, and loudest when Connick Jr. stripped out of his shirt in a mocked-up bedroom set.

“Oh, he’s wearing a vest,” the woman behind me said disappointedly. Then Connick Jr. turned around in his vest. She whooped again. Then Connick Jr. put on a black shirt, and the whooping ended.

The level of cheering and burning bright devotion when a music star is playing on Broadway is always fascinating. Typically, whatever this critic (or any critic) feels is immaterial; the fan and the fandom carries enough fuel to help power the affection thrumming between performer and audience. I have witnessed this in Broadway engagements as diverse as Bruce Springsteen and Barry Manilow.

The night this critic saw it, that same connection was not thrumming between Connick Jr. and his fans. He was working, not charming. They didn’t all stand at the end (indeed the standing ovation was patchy at best), and while the obligatory cries came for the inevitable encore, the roof of the Nederlander didn’t exactly lift off with enthusiasm.

The root of the problem, to me, seemed that Connick Jr. approached each song in the same way. ‘Just One of Those Things’ sounded like ‘You Do Something To Me’ which sounded like ‘All of You’ which sounded like ‘It’s Alright With Me.’ Connick Jr. crooned reliably. He wasn’t out of tune, but the voice started to feel more loudspeaker than instrument (to which cavil, the sound system, the night I was there, had a tinny oddness to it).

The Connick Jr. croon was fine; it played a solid, unremarkable game. It meant songs as emotionally varied as ‘Night and Day’ and ‘Love For Sale’ were sheered of their magic and grit, of their yearning and darkness. There were attempts at levity, which fell horribly flat. One saw Connick. Jr wander a bit across the stage, which we were supposed to believe was a kind of physical/metaphysical leap to New Orleans.

A giant piano appeared, but instead of crafting something thrilling from it—a giant keyboard immediately makes us think warmly of Big, after all!—Connick Jr. edged up and down it, clanging keys, until the big ballet moment.

What should have been a richly varied trip through a master of music’s genius felt like a tough, grinding plod. It is one thing to note that Porter was gay at a very different political and cultural time (as Connick Jr. rightly did), and then completely ignore what that might mean when singing those songs to us, interpreting them perhaps with what might be coded within. At no point did we feel on the knife-edges of pain, desire, loss, love, lust, joy, and despair.

Over and over again, it felt like this was a Harry Connick Jr. show, and not a show of tribute, or even analysis and thought about Cole Porter. Yes, Porter’s songs were efficiently crooned, as a carpenter might plane a plank of wood to smooth uniformity. Lost was all the drama, color, and texture that a true reading of the Porter songbook should reveal and revel in.


The Thin Place

Tony-nominated Lucas Hnath’s new play, The Thin Place, (Playwrights Horizons, to Jan 5) is named after a space between worlds. The idea was sparked by a conversation with a friend who talked about the “thin places” in the town he grew up in—spaces where someone could pass through and disappear.

That sounds fun, or at least the subject of a 20/20 investigation. They are, I guess, like Bermuda Triangles in our everyday life.

The most obvious “thin place” in this story—designed by Mimi Lien and directed by Les Waters—is the world of seances (the space between living and dead; truth and deception), and the focus is shared between a loquacious and commanding English-born medium, Linda (Randy Danson), who becomes the guiding hand in the life of the vulnerable if not suggestible Hilda (Emily Cass McDonnell).

They form a close, possibly romantic attachment. Linda also seems to share a similar are-they? attachment to Sylvia (Kelly McAndrew), and then there is Linda’s lawyer Jerry (Triney Sandoval), who has facilitated her being able to live and work in America. The play is full of other “thin places,” psychological ones of evasion, lies, things unspoken, unclear intimacies, and mysteries unsolved. And some fragile minds, too.

The resulting play from this meditation combines drama, comedy, and then, finally, straight-out ghost story. The pre-game to the scares is a mélange of upset and arch banter. Then the lights go out, and suddenly we are in the play’s central thin place, illuminated by only red light. Hilda is now in control, or is she? This is a slight play, and one which circles some wagons portentously, but whose own growing sense of menace and mystery meant this critic was gripping his coat until the final moment. Mission accomplished: thin place, located. Brrr.