BWW Review: JOHN DAVIDSON Amazes at Birdland
There was a moment in his show when John Davidson said something about people not remembering him, though all the people at Birdland certainly did because all cheered loudly for him throughout the evening. The truth is, though, that it doesn't matter if someone remembers him from his days as the star of Disney movies like The Happiest Millionaire, if a person was a fan of his game shot hosting on The New Hollywood Squares, or if they never heard the name John Davidson. A stranger passing by Birdland could walk in and say they'd like some dinner and drinks, just as an entertainer whose name they didn't know was about to take the stage, and they would still enjoy John Davidson's show.
John Davidson could entertain anyone.
Mr. Davidson's show at Birdland earlier this week is one of the happiest times this writer has ever spent in a nightclub. The man is so genuine with his audience that it is impossible to dislike him. He makes no bones about the fact that he is now 78 years old - it is a running theme throughout an evening in which all of the themes are the basic human conditions with which all live every day: love, family, nature, joy ... politics, world affairs. Mr. Davidson can speak and sing on any subject and while he is doing it, he can make you like him more and more with each passing story and cornball joke. Oh, yeah. The jokes he tells are corn, right off the cob. And you'll LOVE them. He has this affable air about him that makes you lean forward in your seat, and he has this fabulist quality that mesmerizes you into thinking you're hearing a person tell you a story about their family life, then BOOM! He hits you with a punchline that you realize you heard before, sometime in 1976, and you can't believe you fell for it. But you're still rocking back and forth in your seat, laughing at this vaudevillian who took you for a ride on the Hokum Express, and you know that when he wants to sell you a ticket for another ride, you will happily pay for it and get on board.
Mr. Davidson spends 60 or 70 minutes on stage, all alone. He stands for most of the show, holding one of three different guitars (he admits he doesn't even know how many he owns, so vast is his collection), walking about as he tells an amused crowd that, in recent years, while touring with the plays Wicked and Finding Neverland he realized he doesn't want to spend eight shows a week playing somebody else "My favorite role is playing me", leading him to the decision "I'm gonna be a troubadour". That, friends, is exactly what John Davidson is. He needs no other musicians. He is a one-man-band, with a guitar to suit every mood, and a funny little machine that makes his voice into multiple harmonizing voices (where do I get one of those?!) and a stage presence that money can't buy and teachers can't teach, and even though, at 78, he should be slowing down a little - his voice shows no signs of taking a break. OH. MY. GOSH. The voice, the voice, the voice. He can sigh the most sweetly silent of ballads and then belt for the back row of the MUNY in St. Louis, and it appears entirely effortless. He has high notes that would make Constantine Maroulis raise his eyebrows. John Davidson is a musical marvel and, while I'm not a betting man, I would put money on a notion that John Davidson has lived his entire life as a health and fitness fanatic because this voice has been touched by nothing by good things. It is such a beautiful voice that you want to listen to it all day.
The show itself is perfectly constructed and presented. It's hard to tell if Mr. Davidson is speaking extemporaneously or if there is a script that he wrote, that's how natural the delivery of his conversation rolls off of him and onto the stage. The songs he sings are mostly songs that he wrote, every one of them is melodic and moving, whether the emotions they evoke are heartfelt and tender or hilarious and raucous. He easily makes fun of his career, though he does so without a lot of name dropping or industry gossip. Mostly he talks about how men always hated his (perfect) hair, even today, "Hair is the only thing my body produces now... I'm like an albino Chia Pet". He discusses his days as a headliner in Vegas, when his audiences consisted of women who dragged their bored boyfriends and husbands to see the dude with the hair and the dimples, then sings a comedy song he wrote to win over the male members of the audience. He sings a novelty number about a very special guitar he owns, and he sings an amazing song about how difficult it is to be a liberal. Mr. Davidson holds nothing back, talking politics with us "Every time a Republican gets elected I spin more to the left", about getting older "I did not stick around this long just to be Regular", and about his love of his music "Every guitar is like a woman to me". The highlights of the evening, though, are when he tells stories about his marriage and his children. Anyone who has been a couple for a long time will relate to "I Still Wanna Be Your Superman" and people who have had a political conflict with a family member will enjoy "Jenny", which he wrote for his daughter who shares different beliefs than his, but to whom he remains devoted, naturally.
The evening is full to the brim with his commentary on life, politics, and lessons learned as he has aged "I recommend that you go back to the place where you grew up... I think we leave something there". He can create an entire picture for the audience just by where he stands on the stage, the place he affixes his gaze, and the landscape of emotion he provides on his face... and then he adds the words and the melodies that reach inside of your heart and your head, that find that 'on' switch and flip it so that you can be transported into another place and time, one rooted in reality and informed by imagination.