Euan Morton and Eden Espinosa in Concert at Town Hall
Two years ago, mentioning the name Euan Morton to the average Broadway theatre-goer would most likely get you a blank stare in return. Up until a year ago, you'd get the same result by mentioning Eden Espinosa. And though you may still have to nudge a few memories by adding, "The guy who played Boy George in Taboo." or "The one who starred in Brooklyn.", they both quickly acquired an impressive number of loyal Broadway fans who attended their shows multiple times; especially young theatre-goers drawn to the pop scores and nontraditional stories. (Not to say we older folks didn't enjoy their performances as well. We just didn't scream as loudly.)
On the second night of Town Hall's First Annual Broadway Cabaret Festival, both of these rising stars took the stage individually for their concert debuts. With Scott and Barbara Siegel supervising the content, the evening was completely comprised of songs written by musical theatre composers and lyricists, along with a couple of pop standards that eventually found their way to the Broadway stage.
Euan Morton opened the show with a wry matching of "I Am What I Am" and "Who Am I, Anyway?", setting the tone for an hour-long exploration of the kind of music he readily admits he's not accustomed to performing. But with self-effacing humor and heart-on-his-sleeve directness, the 2004 Tony nominee put on a breezy, casual show with flippant, good-humored patter that seemed to glide off the cuff and vocal interpretations of Broadway standards that were traditional, but filled with sincerity, passion and joy.
"These aren't the words. These are pictures.", he joked when referring to the music stand holding his cheat sheets. The audience loved it. He was jaunty and cool with numbers like "Luck Be a Lady", "They Can't Take that Away From Me" and "A Medley for Loiterers" arranged by Will Gartshore and Jay Crowder, where he happily strolled through "Leaning on a Lamp Post", "On The Sunny Side of the Street" and "On The Street Where You Live." His lean body and boyish appearance, matched with direct and unembellished phrasing, gave an innocent warmth to ballads like "If I Loved You" and "As Long As He Needs Me".
After paying tribute to his time in Taboo with a soft and intense "Talk Amongst Yourselves", he pointed out two friends celebrating birthdays who were in the audience. The house lights were turned up so he could find them ("They put you all the way up there?") and he serenaded the celebrants with a fine "Not While I'm Around." The show ended with a sweet, melodious and thoughtfully acted acapella vocal of "American Tune."
Euan Morton's set was directed by Lee Armitage with music direction by pianist Jenny Cartney and more instrumentals by Ratso Harris (bass), James Tsao (violin) and Rob Garcia (drums). Eleasha Gamble and Tracy Olivera provided backup vocals and were featured in a fun comic duet, which I won't reveal in case we're fortunate enough to have this performance reprised.
In sharp contrast to Morton's intimate, cabaret set, Eden Espinosa appears to be grooming herself for jazz clubs, delivering a slick, snazzy showcase displaying a diverse musicality that went far beyond the high pop belting that's been the mainstay of her Broadway appearances. The set did include "Defying Gravity", which she previously sung as Idina Menzel's standby in Wicked, and selections from Brooklyn, but with pianist/conductor/arranger/orchestrator James Sampliner supplying the opportunity for interesting interpretations of American Songbook classics, Espinosa proved herself to be a confident performer in many styles.
A softly sexual "Something's Coming" opened her set, followed by a light pop arrangement of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina." Both were effective, but the first real knockout came with a jazz arrangement of "Summertime". Though Espinosa has been known for colorful vocal embellishments, she never does so at the expense of the dramatic content of the song. Her low moans and light riffs during this Gershwin classic provided a dreamy non-verbal expression of the lyric's lazy contentment.
A lovely, hymn-like "Some Enchanted Evening" was sung with child-like sincerity, slightly altering the melody to make the Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad sound reminiscent of Ave Maria.
"Losing My Mind" may seem a risky choice for a performer so young, but Espinosa pulled this dramatic torch song down to a level of quiet, numb heartbreak, as if Stephen Sondheim wrote it for a college student sitting alone in her dorm room weeks after her first break-up.
Other highlights included a lively, Latin arrangement of "It's Alright With Me", a silly "The Boy From..." and a sassy "I'll Never Fall In Love Again", the latter sung with the defiant verve of someone whose been there and ain't going back.
There was plenty of good solo work from her band, all of whom played for Brooklyn at one time or another: John Putnam (guitar), Irio O'Farrill (bass), John Clancy (percussion) and Jack Bashkow (flute/saxophone).
I had no idea what to expect walking into Town Hall to see Euan Morton and Eden Espinosa play full concert sets for the first time in their careers, but both succeeded tremendously. Congratulations to them and to Scott and Barbara Siegel for recognizing their potential to stretch their talents beyond what Broadway audiences have seen.
Photos by Maryann LoPinto