BWW Review: Aaron Blake Soars to New Heights at 54 Below
If you look at the schedule for the Metropolitan opera you'll see that they don't play every night of the week like a Broadway musical. If you were at Feinstein's/54 Below last night you would understand why they maintain this schedule. Nobody could sing the way Aaron Blake sings two nights in a row without having to live like a hermit, seeing nobody, doing nothing, and remaining on eternal vocal rest. Mr. Blake, in simplest terms, has one of the most glorious vocal instruments you will ever hear, and if you get to hear it live and in person, you're ahead of the curve when it comes to enjoying the pleasures of life. The room at 54 Below was well attended, but the truth is it should have been jam-packed because hearing Aaron Blake sing from the stage at the Met cannot possibly compare to the enraptured experience of hearing him sing for over an hour in a setting as intimate as a nightclub cabaret room. And when he is playing the larger than life roles he fills in the various operas he does, the audience can't begin to get a sense of what an enchanting young man he is.
Starting his show entering from the 54 Below kitchen (in the most stunning suit possibly ever created), Mr. Blake strolls through the audience singing the song "O Sole Mio" as casually as though he were saying "Hello, welcome to my home," so effortless is his skill. Since everyone in the world already knows this song, his opening number, designed to introduce him to his audience, Blake spends a little more time being playful with the crowd, calling out to friends, stopping to hug and kiss family, and encouraging people to really pay attention to what is about to happen, or even better, to take out their iPhones and record it. The man in the Dolce and Gabbana suit insists they use their phones, and the crowd knows this much: he is cut-up. The sense of humor displayed during the opening number remained intact for the entire show, even during the most dramatic numbers, which gave him an opportunity to overact a little, as though onstage at The Met, to give all the complete Aaron Blake experience.
Unable to hide all of the parts of himself, indicating that there was a time when he would have had to, Mr. Blake remarks on the D&G suit "The more sparkle in my life the better" and performs, with cheeky delight, "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" to an audience that he knows understands every word, emotion, and intent coming out of his mouth. He discusses, playfully, the fact that he doesn't need a microphone (something EVERYONE was already thinking) but that, by using the mic, he gets to explore places and colors in his voice that go unchecked when filling that tiny Little Room at The Met. He takes time out to put on some sparkly, shiny, mirror-ball loafers that "are the closest thing I could get to Ruby Slippers" for a Judy Garland medley that would, normally, be ill-advised but that, in his more than capable hands, caused actual swooning in the theater -- everyone at my table was flabbergasted by his "Over the Rainbow," including this writer who usually doesn't want to hear anyone but Judy sing it. He is at varying times shyly self-effacing, boldly confident, mostly soft-spoken, occasionally name-droppy, always playful, naturally charming, delightfully mischievous, devastatingly handsome, and uncompromisingly dedicated to the music. No matter how personal he gets with the crowd while visiting with them, no matter how relaxed he is about his status as one of the great voices in the world, no matter how cheeky and flirtatious he is when dropping hints about the real Aaron Blake, when it's time to sing, it's time for the music.
And, oh, what music.
His show a mixture of opera, standards, and musical theater, Blake moves comfortably between the genres without compromising the original intent of the composers, as some opera singers performing Broadway might tend to, or the quality of his own talent; and although he didn't sing "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" one imagines he would do the song and his teachers justice if he did. If the unfathomable beauty of his own singing voice weren't enough to melt the hearts of the opera buffs filling the seats at 54 Below, the fact that he brought his Met friends J'Nai Bridges and Disella Larusdottir to duet with him on "People Will Say We're In Love" and "Tonight" will be the Something Thankful they mention at the dinner table on Thursday. The entire evening was just pure glamor, fun, humanity, and artistry.
It is, therefore, a misfortune that the evening ended the way that it did.
At some point during his second, maybe third song from the end, it couldn't go unnoticed that the technical director flashed Aaron Blake's keylight twice, the way you flash your lights at approaching traffic to alert them that their high beams are on. It came out of nowhere and, most likely, the majority of the audience gave it no thought. A regular of the nightclub scene, I've seen this now and then, and it seems to be a message to the performer that they are running short on time. Clubs run on a schedule and often have another show after the one being performed, and running over can be disastrous for everyone. Sadly, Mr. Blake ran over, and after his final number, the tumultuous standing ovation sending the clearest of messages, Aaron Blake said: "Does that mean you want one more?" Suddenly, the stage lights went out, the house lights went on, and music came over the loudspeaker. Aaron Blake was being played off, like on an awards show. It was a quite uncomfortable moment. The truth is, though, that it happens. It might not have happened, were it not for two things. Mr. Blake's show started at 9:43, not the intended 9:30. Had he started on time, there might have been some wiggle room - enough for an encore. Still, Mr. Blake's show ran one hour and thirty-three minutes long, which is too long. As this was not his first time on a cabaret stage, Aaron should be aware of the time limitations on a nightclub act: 60 minutes is perfect, 70 is very good, 75 is good, 80 is pushing it, 90 is too long. The next time Aaron Blake puts together a cabaret show (please, powers of the universe, let him plan another one), it would be advisable for him to write a script, time his rehearsals, and stay on course. Random rhetoric on a nightclub stage is always a clock eater, and Aaron Blake's dialogue did ramble to the point of sounding random, and it ate a lot of clock.
In the final analysis, this small moment that took up mere minutes of a wonderful night is not the takeaway. The memorable part of the evening is the great good fortune to see, live, an extraordinary man with one of the greatest voices in the world, living his best life, living in joy, living in the moment. It was a beautiful night, the greatest moments of which were those spent in the number that he dedicated to his mother, before singing directly to her. There is no sight as gorgeous as a boy singing to his mother.
And everything about Aaron Blake is gorgeous.
With Disella Larusdottir
With J'Nai Bridges
Photos by Stephen Mosher