BWW Review: Brandon Victor Dixon at Lincoln Center's AMERICAN SONGBOOK SERIES
Brandon Victor Dixon deserves every bit of fame that he has garnered as a musical theater actor. In fact, he deserves more and one hopes that there will be more, and not just for his benefit, but for the hordes of fans he could earn through a wider visibility. The man has everything. He's disarmingly charming, devastatingly handsome, he's got dance moves, and he can sing, lord have mercy can he sing. People who have seen Mr. Dixon onstage (or in the TV movie/concerts Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent) know about the singing, dancing, and handsome parts of the equation, and the audience at the Valentine's Day presentation of LINCOLN CENTER'S AMERICAN SONGBOOK SERIES concert learned, first hand, about that Brandon Victor Dixon charm.
In his concert, Mr. Dixon looks back on his life with songs everyone knows but can always listen to, songs he has written that people will want to buy when they are available for purchase, and with prose he has penned to map out the journey that has brought him to the place he now stands in life. In truth, the journey of a struggling actor is much the same as many other struggling actors, so the details of getting and losing jobs aren't as illuminating as what those jobs lost and found did to change the actor in question. Mr. Dixon shares those details with his audience, and though there is much empathy for the ups and downs of her personal journey, the true treat in hearing him tell his story is in seeing the grace and gratitude (and delicious sense of humor) that the trip has instilled in him. Speaking seriously through humility one moment, then joking with everyone onstage and in the audience the next, Mr. Dixon easily captures the hearts of everyone in The Appel Room, almost instantaneously. The men want to be friends with him and the women want to go dancing with him (ok, some of the men, too). Brandon Victor Dixon can't help it: he is irresistible.
Twice Tony-nominated Dixon possesses a voice of pure power and absolute inspiration. Whether singing his (incredibly effective) opening number "A Change is Gonna Come" or his favorite audition song from his early days "The Wheels of a Dream," Dixon has the ability to make a person hold their breath or, with a little Marvin & Tammy or some Ray Charles, to make you want to get up out of your chair and dance. His 90-minute show runs the musical gamut in styles but that just gives Mr. Dixon a chance to show his range, which is considerable, in numbers designed to thrill and chill. Every person in the elegant room overlooking Central Park South was completely captivated by the charismatic young man - it was especially gratifying to see some of the older patrons getting down in their seats to the rockin' numbers from Jesus Christ Superstar and Motown, a part of the evening that could not be avoided, thanks to Mr. Dixon's superb band and out-of-this-world back-up singers, all of whom were so wonderful that they made you want to see their own solo show. This night at the Lincoln Center was built around a man, a talent, and an act that should be commended and complimented.
So why is it so difficult for me to come up to my usual level of effusive enthusiasm for the experience? After all, when Broadway World Cabaret was granted the honor of covering the Lincoln Center American Songbook series and this editor sat down to match up the writers with the concerts, carefully choosing which reporter would cover Rufus Wainwright and which would review Stephanie Blythe, who would be the right journalists for Ali Stroker and Natalie Merchant, the first thing that went onto the calendar was Brandon Victor Dixon -- Stephen Mosher. A devoted admirer of Mr. Dixon's I allowed other writers the prestige and excitement of covering the other artists in the series, but I, greedily, chose Mr. Dixon for myself, and, excitedly, counted the days until February 14th so that I could go hear that voice live. I awoke on Valentine's Day, smiling and excited because I was going to hear Brandon Victor Dixon live. I enjoyed hearing that voice live. It was thrilling. Nearly everything about Brandon Victor Dixon is thrilling.
I just can't get past the iPad on the music stand.
During the six and one-half months that I have been working for Broadway World I have noticed, time and again, the propensity for people reading their shows off of their iPad. I have written about it so many times that I am beginning to feel like Mynah Bird or a broken record. I understand when back-up singers, choral singers, symphony concert singers, and last-minute substitutes need a cheat sheet. It's not only acceptable, it's sort of de rigueur when singers have words on hand at an open mic night or an open workshop. There will always be occasions when people need some kind of assistance, but there is no reason to think that a celebrated performer and Tony Award nominee should need to keep a music stand next to them, one to which they repeatedly refer, swiping their iPad left, over and over. And Brandon Victor Dixon wasn't even reading his lyrics - he was reading his script, a script comprised of stories about his life. It's an unfortunate day when a storyteller cannot tell their life story without a script. Even more baffling was the fact that Mr. Dixon was prone to ramble, making one wonder how much time was actually spent on the composition of the script to which he seemed so umbilically attached. Each and every time that an artist turns away from the audience to look at their script, their lyric sheet, their music stand, their iPad, their iPhone (can you imagine), they create a divide between themselves and their audience, they stop the emotional action of the story they are weaving, they remove themselves from the proceedings, and for the unlucky members of the audience sitting ringside, house right, much of their evening was spent looking at the back of a music stand and Brandon Victor Dixon sort of poking out from behind it. That's not what I want to see when I pay the highest ticket price to see a respected artist. And it has to stop. The reason so many young performers and up-and-coming talents are relying on their iPads and lyric sheets is because the people that they respect are leading by example, telling them that it's ok to put out shoddy product, that it will be accepted by the audience when they don't even know the trajectory of their own show. Beautiful young people who wish for a career in the arts are being taught that they will be taken seriously even though their audience is looking at the tops of their heads instead of their eyes, as they read their shows -- but they won't be taken seriously because they are not yet the famous people whose laziness is accepted because they are famous. Sure, when you get to the top you can read your show off of your device, but when you're just starting out, you can't, and these people just beginning their careers are taking their cues from Brandon Victor Dixon and Linda Eder and other celebrities who are saying it's ok to use your iPad to get through your show. But it isn't. And it's never going to be ok.
The use of the iPad and the music stand left me sad and disappointed, but it didn't ruin my night. I listened to the music, which I loved, I watched Mr. Dixon dance, which he can, I saw him play with his friends, which was fun, and I heard his stories, which are worth hearing. I'm not sad that I went, only that the evening wasn't as good as it should have been. After all, it was worth it just to hear "Heaven on Their Minds" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." At the end of the day, you learn to put your disappointment away and take the win, and even with that doggone music stand and iPad up on the stage with him, seeing Brandon Victor Dixon live is still a win.
The Lincoln Center American Songbook Series at The Appel Room has four shows scheduled in February:
Natalie Merchant 2/26 8:30 pm
Kalani Pe'a 2/27 8:30 pm
Ali Stroker 2/28 8:30 pm
Martin Sexton 2/29 8:30 pm
For information and tickets please visit the Lincoln Center website
Photo of Brandon Victor Dixon by Dario Calmese