BWW Review: Jason Robert Brown Teaches Harvard a Thing or Two
In Concert: Jason Robert Brown
Thursday, March 27, 2014 at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA
Presented by Learning From Performers (Office for the Arts at Harvard) and the Harvard University Department of Music (Jason Robert Brown is the Dept. of Music's 2013-2014 Blodgett Artist in Residence)
Music Director, Madeline Smith '14; Producer, Simon de Carvalho '14; Harvard Student Performers: Kyra Atekwana, Jacob Brandt, Joshuah Campbell, Tess Davison, Anise Molina, Kim Onah, Leah Reis-Dennis, Amelia Ross, Amy Sparrow, Jonathan Stevens
Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown is the Blodgett Artist in Residence at the Harvard University Department of Music for the spring term and he gave the equivalent of a master class last night at Oberon. In obeisance to the show business mantra "the show must go on," Brown soldiered on despite the remnants of a seasonal malady ("As we say in Hebrew, I have the hyuch") which played havoc with his vocals, but did nothing to deter from his rhapsodic keyboard skills. In a seventy-five minute performance, Brown served a buffet of delicious morsels from his musical theater canon and had the audience eating out of his hand.
A chorus of ten Harvard students got a thrill joining Brown onstage for a couple of selections from his 1996 Off-Broadway revue Songs For a New World and his 2008 Broadway musical 13, but mostly it was just the composer, the keyboard, and the characters he creates to tell their stories in his songs. His lyrics are authentic and insightful, with a conversational quality that conveys character and propels the story forward. Musically, Brown favors a hard-hitting bass line while his right hand plays multiple riffs and flourishes that sometimes sound improvisational, especially evident in "Long Long Road," a bluesy piece he wrote for a friend's wedding following much cajoling.
Showing his range of musical genres, he employed a Latin beat in "I Love Betsy," a character song from his next Broadway musical Honeymoon in Vegas, a hybrid funk/rap musicalization of text from Hamlet (with four Harvard coeds as backup singers), and a tenth anniversary tribute to his wife ("A Caravan of Angels") that he described as "sort of an Al Green thing." Hoping to sell some tickets to The Bridges of Madison County currently on Broadway at the Schoenfeld Theatre, Brown sang the Robert Kincaid character's beautiful ballad "It All Fades Away." No JRB concert would be complete without something from his Tony-winning score from Parade and The Last Five Years, although he opted for a song that was cut from the latter. ("I Could Be in Love With Someone Like You" was replaced with "Shiksa Goddess" after the musical's first run.) Maybe it was the hyuch, but Brown's voice sounded a lot like Norbert Leo Butz (from the original Off-Broadway cast).
To close the concert, Brown chose "Someone To Fall Back On" from his 2005 album Wearing Someone Else's Clothes, a song that obviously holds great meaning for him. Like so many of his compositions, it feels like there is an autobiographical element to it. Although I don't know whether or not that's true, it certainly enhances the emotional value of the song. Hearing it performed in the intimate club setting of Oberon by the musical genius himself...priceless.
Photo: Jason Robert Brown