Love is most certainly for sale at “Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter.” Although the composer-lyricist is justifiably renowned for his coruscating wit and insouciant wordplay, in this tight 90-minute concert Connick concentrates on the love songs – tender, playful, bittersweet — that make up a hefty portion of Porter’s work.
True, Connick kicks off the evening with a jaunty romp through “Anything Goes,” perhaps Porter’s most celebrated “list” song, noting all the ways the world has become naughtier (circa 1934). But for much of the evening Connick delivers Porter songs that are more naturally suited to his own smoothly dashing persona: a crooner firmly in heart-melting Frank Sinatra mode, seducing the audience with a cockeyed smile, more than a dollop or two of heady romanticism, and of course a silk-cravat of a baritone that, despite Connick’s long career, scarcely shows a hint of wear and tear.
The show, drawing upon Connick’s recent album of the same name, is clearly a labor of love. Not only does Connick sing roughly a dozen songs, spread out some genial patter, hoof it a bit, and play the piano; he is also the show’s writer and director — and the arranger and orchestrator, too.
That said, he certainly does not stint when it comes to sharing the spotlight with his musicians: the show features a remarkably large orchestra of more than two dozen. The brass section alone makes up about half of that, and provides hot bursts of sound that add the requisite punch to the Big Band-style arrangements. (The sound mix could, however, use some adjusting; at times the plush music-making threatened to muddy the lyrics.)
Most of the evening’s material is familiar, drawing on Porter’s musical theater repertoire as well as songs that have now become standards, with a few dips into the rarities bin: “True Love,” first introduced in the movie “High Society” by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, isn’t exactly a cabaret staple, and Connick’s performance highlights its lilting simplicity. And in a sequence that includes a slide-on set designed to suggest a funky New Orleans bar with a Dixieland jazz band, Connick sings another “High Society” selection, “Mind If I Make Love to You,” in a swinging arrangement.
The production is deluxe: Aside from that sizable orchestra, there is also a stage-encompassing video screen, or collection of them, on which we see Connick frolicking with a towering statue of Porter. The composer-lyricist is again pictured, his impish, slightly disdainful smile contrasting with the almost haunted, soulful eyes, as Connick gives us a brief tour of the highs (and lows) of Porter’s life.
For “Begin the Beguine,” a piano, or rather an endless series of them, rolls onstage to cover virtually its entire width, like an accordion unfolding, with Connick dashing up and down its expanse to tickle the keys, before he joins a dancer, Aaron Burr, to do some brisk tap-dancing atop it. Another diversion finds those video screens deployed for a short lesson in musicology, as Connick describes the composition of Porter’s “Night and Day,” with the notes and notations appearing before us as the various instruments play them at the described length.
Connick’s clean voice and satiny, casual delivery are well-suited to Porter’s songs, which go down smoothly as a fine Scotch, or perhaps a dry martini. Porter had a distinctly non-operatic approach to matters romantic, and Connick’s laid-back, jazz-influenced singing is well suited to Porter’s. The slightly rueful “You Do Something to Me” and the insouciantly debonair “Just One of Those Things” are among the evening’s highlights, while “I Love Paris” — one of Porter’s more uninspired songs, truth be told — might profitably have been set aside.
Rather unusually, given that the song is a low moan of woe written in the first-person voice of a prostitute, Connick tackles “Love for Sale” — a daring if slightly incongruous choice both for a male singer (although Connick is hardly the first), and in the sense that it might be creditably accused these days of taking a rather sentimental view of its subject.
But for the duration of this concert, the angst of the 21st century and the thornier complications of the relations between the sexes are left outside the door. Connick has always been a throwback to another era, an emblem of nostalgic wistfulness for a more decorous and carefree age. And that’s the way his fans clearly want to see him: a dashing romantic figure who seems to be flirting, or even seducing, with every note.
At one point, when Connick performed a half-costume change onstage — from black tie to a more casual black shirt — the audience all but roared in approval, hoping for a little swoon-worthy beefcake. But Connick demurely showed just a hint of an undershirt: A seasoned pro, he knows that half the allure of romantic attraction is the tease, keeping some kinds of intimacy just out of reach.
“Harry Connick Jr.: A Celebration of Cole Porter” opened at the Nederlander Theatre on Dec. 12, 2019.
Creative: Written by Harry Connick, Jr.; Music and lyrics by Cole Porter; Additional songs by Harry Connick, Jr.; All music arranged by Harry Connick, Jr.; All music orchestrated by Harry Connick, Jr.; Directed by Harry Connick, Jr.; Choreographer of “Begin the Beguine”: Luke Hawkins; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt and Alexis Distler; Lighting Design by Ken Billington.
Producers: Produced by Connick Performances, Inc., James L. Nederlander and Grove Entertainment; Presented by special arrangement with The Cole Porter Musical & Literary Property Trusts.
Cast: Harry Connick, Jr., Aaron Burr and Luke Hawkins.