Review: JAMES RICH SALUTES NAT KING COLE A Sweet And Swingin' Good Time At 54 Below

Built on the foundation of a new musical play, this cabaret is musically ready to go.

By: Nov. 27, 2023
Review: JAMES RICH SALUTES NAT KING COLE A Sweet And Swingin' Good Time At 54 Below
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Looking suave and elegant as a world-class entertainer stepping out of the pages of the past and onto the stages of the present, James Rich owned the spotlight at 54 Below when he debuted his Nat King Cole tribute show on November 9th.   The show, titled appropriately enough James Rich SALUTES NAT KING COLE, centered around a musical play that Mr. Rich has been developing about the legendary singer.  The play THERE WAS A BOY was the discussion of much of the James Rich musical cabaret, with descriptions of scenes and how the music being played at 54 Below related to the play currently in development.   And given what the audience was treated to a glimpse of, the musical would appear to be quite a viable property, especially with Mr. Rich leading the way in the leading role… but the cabaret being presented is not a backer’s audition for the show.  It is not a “trial run” of the property, it is not a “scaled down” version of the play - this is a right and proper musical cabaret, a tribute to a great man of music, and James Rich and his fantastic (underline it) band have put the outing together very nicely.

James Rich is a most appealing entertainer, with personality and charm and a most engaging air about him.  His relationship with the people on the stage and in front of the stage was both tenacious and relaxed, as he recounted historical facts from Cole’s life, anecdotes from his own life, details regarding the play he has written, and what the Nat King Cole canon has meant (and continues to mean) to him.  The vocals are smooth and nuanced, and although this is a tribute to Nat Cole, Mr. Rich has not felt the need to mimic the legend.  His opening number "Nature Boy" was an ideal place to inform the Nat King Cole fans of this, as the arrangement of Cole's hit ballad was straight-up jazz, delivered with drive, determination, and a fair amount of sultry sensuality.  A proficient vocalist with sprightliness, confidence, and a chic yet understated fashion sense, Mr. Rich has curated an admirable evening of Nat King Cole songs which he delivers with the requisite balance of respect for his honoree and his own personal artistic style.  It is, indeed, a pleasure to see a singer who does not feel the restriction of parroting the artist that is the focus of their program.  Mr. Rich has come to be authentic, as well as pay tribute, and it all works for him, but there is a palpable change in his energy when he settles into the portion of his script that actively focuses on Nat and There Was A Boy.  His passion for the project is showing, and it is infectious.  

Away from the discussion about the play, Mr. Rich seemed, at times, a trifle stiff, perhaps even a bit uncomfortable, tending to editorialize when he didn’t need to and respond to every audience member who reacted to something he said, which is a lovely instinct but which effectively stopped the flow of his performance.  There is a section of the script regarding a microphone named Freddy that is a little precious and that might necessitate some rethinking.  The script could do with a little tightening up but it sounds good in Rich's voice because it appears to be authentic to his own speech patterns - nevertheless, it still needs tightening.  Whatever flaws there may be in the script, though, they all go away when he starts singing.  Because James Rich can sing… he can REALLY sing.

With his accomplished band serving up a sophisticated, metropolitan sound, James Rich seemed to just ease himself into every musical number, whether the focus was a ballad, an up-tempo, a jazz treatment, or something a little more traditional, like a completely relevant encore - “The Christmas Song” - that sent the audience home really feeling the holiday spirit.   From opening notes to final bows, the entire musical program was an audible treat, especially the evening highlight “Sweet Lorraine” as arranged for voice and piano by Musical Director Matt Falker and performed to perfection by the two-decades-old friends and colleagues.  Mr. Rich is, indeed, lucky to have the likes of Mr. Falker, bassist James Cammack, and drummer Dave Tedeschi to share in the grandness of the glorious catalogue of music, with famous Cole songs like “Day In, Day Out” and “Route 66” filling the 54 Below air with electricity and excitement, and with Matt joining James on “Straighten Up and Fly Right” to make some sumptuous harmonies.   The musical offerings aside, there was a touching moment in the proceedings when James Rich let the tears flow while singing “I Wish You Love” in memorium for his dog, Lincoln George, who died after thirteen years - and any animal lover or pet owner can really relate to that, at any given moment, but even those without an animal in their life could not help but understand, fully, what that loss is like, and that is only because James Rich is the kind of singing actor who leans into the story and the honesty, allowing himself to be the vessel, not only for art but for the humanity.  It was a wonderful moment in an unforgettable evening that did NOT feature the song “Unforgettable” which was a shame, and possibly something Rich and director Duane Boutté might have an informal chat about at some point.  Or maybe the two colleagues won’t do that because maybe James Rich is saving that particularly iconic melody for the audiences that go to see the play There Was A Boy when it lands onstage which, if this cabaret show is any indication, will hopefully be soon.  When it comes to Nat King Cole, whether on the theatrical stage or the cabaret one, James Rich has a great artistic partner and a good thing on his hands.

Find great shows to see on the 54 Below website HERE.

James Rich can be found online HERE.