BWW Review: THE GREAT BROADWAY BELT SHOW! at Feinstein's/54 Below is Sugary, Showstopping Goodness
If showstoppers are the sugary-sweet dessert of any Broadway show, you might think eating nothing but cake would leave you sick to your stomach. But in the case of THE GREAT BROADWAY BELT SHOW! at Feinstein's/54 Below, you'd be wrong. At the April 25 show, dessert for dinner never looked so good.
The ever-busy Scott Siegel, who produced and hosted the event, introduced the first belting number of the night, revealing Christina Bianco's rendition of famed FUNNY GIRL number "Don't Rain on My Parade" (Bob Merrill/Jule Styne) had been shuffled to the top of the show as a tribute to the night's unfortunate weather.
Accompanied by musical director John Fischer on piano, it was a skillful performance from Bianco but didn't match the bombast of the songs that soon followed, with the gifted performer nailing the high notes but, unfortunately, quelling some of the more manic tendencies that make her a blast to watch.
The night's second song would have made for a more natural opening number, with Karen Mason, not incorrectly dubbed the "Queen of Belting" by Siegel, expertly taking on the title song from SUNSET BOULEVARD (Andrew Lloyd Webber/Don Black/Christopher Hampton), a musical she knew well from her days as the standby for the Norma Desmond role in the '90s.
While there's something to be said for actors getting to play around in the sandbox with material they might not otherwise be offered, Mason's performance was an exquisite example of someone knowing the material backwards and forwards and still managing to make it feel fresh.
Though it was a hard act to follow, Farah Alvin did just fine with her rip-roaring---or perhaps "rootin', shootin', ever-tootin'"---performance of another FUNNY GIRL number, "Cornet Man." Alvin was brassy and bold, swinging her hips breezily to the music and made the song's absence from the 1968 film adaptation seem like a glaring error.
When Luba Mason took the stage to sing "Raunchy" (Harvey Schmidt/Tom Jones) from 110 IN THE SHADE, what was particularly striking were the deliberate and often hysterical expressions that washed over her face. With the minimalist accompaniment and the song heating up in fits and starts, it was a fantastically controlled performance (both vocally and in her physicality) if perhaps an unexpected choice of song given the night's theme.
In fact, a few of the numbers tended to, if not exactly defy the assignment, arrive as somewhat unlikely choices for the "Super Bowl of Singing," like Jessica Hendy's salacious and, once again, solid performance of "Life of the Party" from Andrew Lippa's THE WILD PARTY, which only truly explodes into a belting number at the tail-end.
But then there was Brian Charles Rooney (THE THREEPENNY OPERA), who gulped down all the scenery without even chewing as he belted THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW's "Sweet Transvestite" (Richard O'Brien, Richard Hartley). Somewhat faithful to Tim Curry but with an added Elvis-esque flair, Rooney quickly made the performance entirely his own, punctuating each elongated "Transylvania" with a two-pronged cackle.
Like any good Dr. Frank-N-Furter, he broke the mold, scrapping the park-and-bark method near the end, keeping the audience waiting as he exited the stage and made a full, silent rotation around the room before returning for those two... final... syllables.
It was electric to watch, but no one seemed to be having as much fun as Karen Mason, who was all smiles when she returned for an utterly joyous rendition of "Almost Like Being in Love" (Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe) from BRIGADOON before making an early departure ahead of a recording session.
To that end, the evening had a true insider feel, with Siegel keeping the proceedings going in a laidback manner as he parked and barked himself---introducing the singers from a chair onstage---as well as Hendy's fashionably late arrival from her Broadway gig performing in CATS.
With two songs apiece, everyone had a chance to show their range, none more so than Rooney, whose heart-shattering rendition of MISS SAIGON's "Why God, Why?" (Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil/Richard Maltby, Jr.) drew the evening's most effusive applause from the crowd. Rooney's repeat performance was revelatory when contrasted with the bawdy bravado of his Frank-N-Furter earlier in the show.
In a triumphant encore of her own, Bianco barrelled through her seemingly endless catalogue of impressions in the cleverly-selected "I Am What I Am" (Jerry Herman) from LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. In the span of just a few minutes, she gave spot-on impersonations of Barbra, Bernadette, Billie, and Britney, to name a few, nailing each and every one and earning bonus points for legendarily spinning around as the spirit of Celine entered her body.
Likewise, Hendy took the stage again to shut it down, fittingly enough, with "Memory" (Andrew Lloyd Webber/T. S. Eliot) from CATS. However one may feel about the lightning rod of a production or Webber in general, her stunning climactic key change alone proved the number certainly fit the bill.
A few curious choices aside, it's truly hard to be mad at a show that's offering you all cake and no vegetables. The night's final selections doubled down on the show's title, serving the unrelenting emotion you want in a good belting number and proving that revisiting some of the usual suspects isn't a bad thing when you have performers this good. That's something the minds behind the show would do well to remember in case Super Bowl of Singing II is in the cards. Now another slice, please!
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.