BWW Review: Edmund Bagnell Hits a Sweet Note in HE PLAYS THE VIOLIN at 54 Below
Edmund Bagnell is dreamy. Let's get that out of the way, so we can focus on other things. His looks are dreamy, his personality is dreamy, his singing voice is dreamy, and his violin playing is dreamy. There. Now let's talk about his solo cabaret debut HE PLAYS THE VIOLIN.
Mr. Bagnell sits in the position of First Violin in the famous (infamous?) string quartet Well Strung. The gentlemen have built up a big following and an even bigger success with their impeccable work - but every string quartet is made up of four individuals, and this individual has a story to tell, and a claim to stake. You see, before Well Strung came along, Mr. Bagnell was an accomplished actor with a CV of roles in some pretty impressive shows, not the least of which was playing Tobias in John Doyle's production of Sweeney Todd. It would seem that Bagnell does more than just play the violin, in spite of the clever and appropriate name of his show. Those talents need a home of their own, a place warm and nurturing; and what is warmer than the glow of a solo spot, what is more nurturing for a performer than applause, the sound that says love? Obviously, Mark Cortale had the same thoughts when he conceived the solo concert for Edmund and helped him to develop it for some out of town tryouts earlier this year.
So when Edmund Bagnell walked up the few steps that brought him onto the stage at Feinstein's/54 Below, he was ready to show his ample audience that upon which he has been working so diligently with director Michael Schiralli and musical director extraordinaire Matt Aument.
He Plays The Violin is a particularly well-conceived show, one that fits Bagnell like a glove for more than the obvious reason of the instrument he plays. First of all, Bagnell can add "writer" to his list of talents. He is credited as having written the play, and writing a cabaret show consists of more than just choosing which pieces of music will be performed. Mr. Bagnell is clearly serious about his storytelling and takes full advantage of the opportunity to share himself and his history, as well as his acting skills. Jokes are landed, accents are applauded, and the trajectory of his personal journey in life is appreciated by all. Aspects of his odyssey will resonate with some of his audience, while the chapters relating uniquely to only him are recounted in ways that neither patronize nor pander to the crowd - the stories are simply told and the audience happily follows this Pied Piper into his personal world of music, adventure and soul growth. His is a smartly genial nature, made more engaging by the enjoyment he takes in making music, be it music made with lightning fast fingers on a fiddle, or a honeyed voice of dulcet notes both powerful or peaceful. It is a pleasure to watch this man at work.
Using a range of music that matches the range of his singing voice, Mr. Bagnell brings accessible tenderness to pop songs like "Carolina On My Mind" and effusive sentiment to standards like "That's All" and, always, with a personal story tie-in to make the music, the story, and himself accessible, a gift to his adoring audience (the man seated next to me was so besotted by Bagnell that he sighed repeatedly throughout the entire performance, an endearing comment on the violinist's ability to charm). His rendition of "Moon River" is absolutely stunning, while his "You've Got a Friend In Me" tells the audience exactly what is the relationship between a musician and their instrument, in a most masterful way. Especially effective is an exceptional Sondheim medley on vocals and violin, though I might offer that Mr. Bagnell reconsider the reciting of his character's dialogue from Sweeney Todd, as the only character the audience wants to see at this show is Edmund Bagnell, who is more than enough. The addition of Tobias' lines and cockney accent in mid-song seem superfluous -- conversely, a brief anecdote about Edmund might sweeten the Sondheim, a composer who seems to fit his versatile and rangey voice quite well.
Referring to the experience as "exciting and terrifying" more than once during the evening (as written into his script) it is occasionally clear that Edmund Bagnell was a bit nervous, which is entirely understandable. Anyone who has ever stood on a cabaret stage knows from nerves, but those standing in the solo spot for the first time, and on a stage as prestigious as that of 54 Below, know that nerves are an unavoidable part of the equation. With the passage of time and the acquisition of more shows under his belt, Mr. Bagnell will see those nerves melt away, as he relaxes into who he is on that stage, what his role is up there, how to be, in a nightclub, the Edmund that welcomes people into his own home. It's a simple matter of getting used to looking in our eyes and talking to us. It's a state of being that comes with experience, and right now he is ahead of the curve because he is already enjoyable, approachable, and, yes, dreamy. With his degree of talent and his wealth of likeability, he could make the biggest mistake on that stage and the audience would stay with him, because they are not there to judge him, they are not out to get him: all the audience at an Edmund Bagnell show wants to do is applaud him, support him and revel in the beauty of his artistry, all of it from the sensational violin work for which he is most well-known, to the singing for which he is admired, and the storytelling for which he will be adored.
Admiration and adoration - that's what the audience felt while Edmund perceived exciting and terrifying. But the exciting and terrifying only happens the first time, because the audience will tell the truth: and the audience at He Plays The Violin was admiring and adoring, both of which Edmund Bagnell earned and deserved on this, his maiden cabaret voyage -- but definitely not his last.
He Plays The Violin was a one-night-only debut at Feinstein's/54 Below. When more performances are announced, Broadwayworld will bring you the news.
Follow Edmund Bagnell on Twitter @edmundbagnell and Instagram @edmund_bagnell
Photos by Stephen Mosher