BWW Review: Samantha Barks Brings Broadway, Bieber, and Breakups to Feinstein's/54 Below in New York Solo Debut
Friday evening at Feinstein's/54 Below was one unlike any I had experienced in quite a long time. I've been a regular at the intimate midtown venue since it opened its doors over five years ago. I feel that I've blessedly had the chance to see all of the "above the marquee" (aka top-price) talent on my bucket list. Streisand, Bernadette, Liza, Stritch, Stokes, Chenoweth, Osnes, Benanti, Salonga--- hard to top this roster when it comes to an evening of pure vocal perfection and undeniable star-power.
This past weekend, as the Isle of Man's Samantha Barks made her much-anticipated United States solo debut, I saw a performer whose presence and voice created a thrill, if not completely on par with, definitely in the same conversation as what I felt the first time I saw Lea in concert.
Discovered first by UK theatre nerds in 2008 when she came in third place on the OLIVER! casting reality show I'D DO ANYTHING, hers wasn't a name known to the international audience until she landed the plum role of Eponine in the major motion picture adaptation of LES MISERABLES. Rounding out a sizzling ensemble of film stars in the stratosphere, Barks' casting was among the last roles to be filled. Along with a still-not-quite-yet-a-sex-symbol Aaron Tveit, she was easily the least famous person among the principal players. But any good LES MIZ fan already knew from her breathtaking 25th Anniversary Concert performance that "Dear 'Ponine" was to be in good hands.
Following her hauntingly beautiful cinematic debut and numerous head-turning appearances on the red carpet, Barks has gone on to starring roles in major London productions of CITY OF ANGELS, THE LAST FIVE YEARS and HONEYMOON IN VEGAS as well as originated the title role in Berkeley Rep's world premiere of AMELIE.
Long a fan of her powerful, versatile voice, this long-awaited debut was one I was not about to miss. The mood at the venue was energetic, the crowd largely consisting of excited teenagers and Wall Street "bros" who were clearly familiar with Barks' work. She took the stage, greeted by enthusiastic applause, and opened with the pop-folk single "Troublemaker" from her 2016 self-titled solo album.
Not having heard the album or this track before, I was immediately struck by the easy tone of her voice. She didn't sound overly "musical theatre." She didn't sound like a Disney princess. If I had to find a resemblance, I'd say she sounded a bit like Taylor Swift (who was once rumored as a potential Eponine) on a very healthy day. And I mean this as a compliment to both of them. It's no secret that many of the best vocalists out there are steered into pop-country, a medium that benefits greatly from raw talent (hello Rachel Potter!) without the need for fancy auto-tuning and producer sorcery.
"I grew up on an island called the Isle of Man. We had lovely theatre, but being able to watch [YouTube videos] of 54 Below was my cool thing to do. It's where I went to see all of my favorite people, so it's very much an honor to be here tonight."
Not wasting any time, she started "at the very beginning" and delivered a sultry torch version of "As Long As He Needs Me" from OLIVER! Her voice immediately took on a smokey, age-infused quality, an impressive contrast to the younger, lighter vocals demonstrated with her opening tune.
After a pair of breezy anecdotes about her love of "Sex and the City" (complete with unsuccessful attempt at finding her inner Carrie Bradshaw), things got a little bit more country with a stunning arrangement of The Band Perry's "If I Die Young" before leading effortlessly into the riff-heavy, unconventionally anthemic "Hard to Find" from Barks' album. The great Billy Stritch manned the piano the entire evening.
Describing herself as "the ultimate Cupid, responsible now for two marriages," the charming performer recounted the story of her sister's wedding, which "manifested itself in [Barks making] the ugliest face ever" as she ugly-cried in front of friends and family. Cue seamless transition into an old favorite, "dedicated to [her] sister, for ruining her wedding." That favorite: "Summertime."
To which at least one of us in the audience endured a brief moment of, "Do we really need a new rendition of this song?" The answer, it would turn out, is absolutely. Her voice, now at once smooth and raspy, lent itself ideally to what can best be described a heartfelt, gin-soaked tribute to the countless great jazz divas to color the Gershwin classic over the decades.
Going further back into her musical memory, Barks recalled first hearing the next tune on a children's choir album as a youth. It was a seemingly personal discovery and a favorite at a young age... before being informed by her father that, indeed, "Blackbird" was by The Beatles. She followed up a lilting "Blackbird" with her deeply emotional take on Sarah McLachlan's TOY STORY tearjerker, "When He Loved Me." The song has struck a chord with me since Laura Osnes performed it at Café Carlyle in memory of her mother.
At risk of letting the tone get too serious on a Friday night, Barks asked, "Any Justin Bieber fans here tonight?" There were. And I am. There's really not much I can say about what was to follow, except that she led the house in a rousing singalong of "Love Yourself:"
At this point, a gentleman in the front row felt compelled to inform Barks that the song is about Selena Gomez. Not breaking her stride, she replied, "Was it? Do you know what? Originally it was a bit ruder, wasn't it? I thought I'd keep it civilized!"
Frome one break-up song to the next, Barks slipped effortlessly back into her clarion-voiced folk-pop dialect, following up the Bieber Break with Burt Bacharach and Katy Perry's respective meditations on lost love, "This House Is Empty Now" and "The One That Got Away."
What struck me most about the evening as a whole is how completely it managed to tell a story of loss, heartbreak and healing almost entirely through song interpretation. With minimal setup and only very essential between-song banter, Barks brought us all out safely on the other side with Joni Mitchell's reverent, introspective "Both Sides Now:"
I've looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It's love's illusions I recall
I really don't know love at all.
But now old friends they're acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day.
In keeping with the theme (if not necessarily the style) of the evening, Barks closed out her set with yet another breakup-related song, but it was one that leaves everyone in a great mood. Having recently starred in a London production of THE LAST FIVE YEARS, the actress let us know it was time to belt. And it was here that we heard her raw, unadulterated musical theatre power as she made short work of the wildly difficult "I Can Do Better Than That." You might even describe it as fresh, undiluted and pure. It was, as a matter of fact, top of the line.
Speaking personally, Barks' New York solo debut was everything I want in an intimate evening with a top-notch talent at 54 Below, Traversing a varied terrain of genres, she demonstrated a skill set that fully supports my belief that she is one of the most essential musical theatre artists working today.
A pleasant, engaging storyteller, she was clearly enjoying herself and seemed totally at ease from the start. With flowing, succinct anecdotes, glowing smile and quirky, self-effacing humor, Barks' persona is aggressively likable. But in the end it was her powerful, versatile voice and pitch-perfect relationship with her music that steered the ship and created something quite remarkable.
From small British island to reality TV runner-up to West End regular to film star to the New York cabaret stage. We all left the room with only one question: when will it be time for Broadway?
Oh, and she did return to the stage for an encore. "I left one out," she laughed. It was "On My Own." And it was glorious.
Videos: Matt Blank and YouTube/The Barksy.
Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.