Harry Connick Jr. has arrived on Broadway at the age of 23, and he approaches it the same way he approaches music. Someone has never sat the kid down and told him he's too young to be this good at it.
Starting three sold-out weeks at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, Connick plays in what might loosely be labeled the classic pop style, allowing him the gamut from Jelly Roll Morton to Cole Porter. When he's singing "It Had To Be You," yes, it's hard not to see images of Sinatra.
Yet Connick also will ask the crowd, "You feel all right? I mean, you feel all right?" - which is less Sinatra than Mick Jagger. He's not even close to a rock 'n' roller, but he's found something he likes in the stage style.
In fact, Connick likes stage chatter in general - enough so his 20-song evening lasts 2 1/2 hours. Fortunately, he carries it off, with just enough ragged edges to frame the show in a sort of relaxed charm.
It's what's inside the picture, though, that tears the house down. Connick understands that the common denominator between Jagger and Sinatra, or Jelly Roll Morton and Cole Porter, is exceptional music - and he delivers it.
From the Duke Ellington/Bob Russell "Don't Get Around Much Any More" to a sizzling version of "Beyond the Sea" that tips its hat to both Sinatra and Bobby Darin, Connick shows he can pick 'em and deliver.
Furthermore, and possibly most impressive, he uses this show to gently shake the "retro" tag. Several first-rate classics notwithstanding, this show runs on new material, injecting fresh words and musical nuance into the old style. Of the evening's half-dozen show-stoppers, none is more moving than the melancholy ballad "Drifting," written by his conductor Marc Shaiman.
Connick then shows both shrewd musical sense and great confidence by following up with "Danny Boy," also in a slow Shaiman arrangement. Singing alone in a single spotlight, Connick has to know he's putting himself up against every great crooner - and he comes out undiminished.
This is not to say Connick is finished work. He's still shaping a vocal style, and with all of American music at his disposal - he finishes this night with a thundering medley of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and "Saints" - there's no telling what he'll work into future compositions.
The fact he uses both his own superb 16-piece band and an orchestra in the second half of this show suggests the breadth of his horizons. It also suggests he just may reach them.
There are 34 standing-room tickets at the Lunt-Fontanne, sold daily. It may be the best seat in town.
Star quality's an intangible. And Harry Connick Jr.'s got a good bit of it. At one point in his Broadway concert debut Friday, he adlibbed to the audience, "Y'all sound nervous, too. I'm nervous as hell." But for the most part he radiated a spirit-lifting self-confidence which grew as the night went on and the audience roared its approval. When he cut loose with some New Orleans piano (urging first with bravado: "Check this out!"), you shared in his glee.
With his big band swinging behind him (not nearly as well as he kept insisting it was - but his enthusiasm's part of his charm), he sang "Beyond the Sea" in a witty arrangement by Marc Shaiman, who also composed the most substantive new song in the concert (and on Connick's last album), "Drifting." He used the whole stage in his show and played seemingly every instrument.
At times he overreached himself - you heard some inappropriate notes at the piano, vocal strain during "Something's Gotta Give," and so on - but generally his youthful audacity was buoying. It doesn't matter much if the tonal quality of his voice is unremarkable. His time is good. The arrangements showcase him terrifically. And most importantly, he knows how to connect with a live audience. Someone ought to build him a runway into the audience, like Jolson used at the Winter Garden; informal and insouciant, he reaches people. Whether singing, dancing (amateurishly yet winsomely), or kibitzing, he's fun - much more so "live" than on records or TV.
In some ways, he's still green. After climaxing wonderfully with "It Had to Be You" (getting a stronger standing ovation than at the show's end), he went on to sing a mood-dampening dirge he'd composed, "Buried in Blue" - a self-indulgent blunder a more seasoned pro wouldn't have made. But give him time. This showman's only 23. Despite flaws, he's already clearly a winner - and one I can't wait to see again.
In Harry Connick Jr.'s superb new show at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, this 23-year-old musical Wunderkind from New Orleans does the work of several entertainers. Over the course of the two-hour two-act evening, Mr. Connick plays the piano, sings, leads his own 16-piece big band, jokes with the audience, dances, plays a little bass and drums and models his Alexander Julian wardrobe.
"An Evening With Harry Connick Jr. and His Orchestra," with a Broadway run that has been extended to Dec. 8, is the conclusion of a six-month tour on which Mr. Connick took his hand-picked big band around the country, performing a mixture of standards and original songs. The band is fiery and young. (Its members range in age from 20 to 35, Mr. Connick announced at Friday's opening-night show.)
In the past, Mr. Connick's onstage charisma has threatened to obliterate all those around him. Happily, on Broadway the focus of the show remains, as it should, on the singer and pianist's interaction with his ensemble.
From the show's opening moments, it is apparent that Mr. Connick and his band are much more than nostalgic swing revivalists. The sound, style and rhythmic attack of the ensemble is a direct extension of Mr. Connick's sharpening pianistic personality. That style folds a percussive, spiky, single-note approach reminiscent of Thelonious Monk into a ferociously animated modern-jazz elaboration of New Orleans blues and boogie-woogie. The balance of these ingredients remains as mercurial as the abrupt rhythmic tugs shivering through Mr. Connick's brash piano solos.
Adapted for a big band, the same general style is notable for its spareness and muscularity. In arrangements charged with a suspenseful exictement by the bassist Ben Wolfe and the drummer Shannon Powell, the horn fanfares explode like Mr. Connick's own sudden pianistic eruptions. At moments, the band's crackling energy is almost too much for Mr. Connick's voice, which he seemed to be holding in reserve at Friday evening's show.
Vocally, Mr. Connick's style is still in a process of clarification. At heart, he is a sultry crooner whose way of eliding syllables owes a great deal to a languid New Orleans rhythm-and-blues tradition. Part of him is also influenced by the aggressively swinging side of Frank Sinatra. If he still hasn't found a way to shade one aspect into the other seamlessly, the breadth of Mr. Connick's expressive aspirations, from an extreme tenderness to antic playfulness, is admirable.
Those two extremes were wonderfully illustrated on Friday by performances of Cole Porter's "It's All Right With Me" and of Mr. Connick's own ballad "Buried in Blue," which has lyrics by Ramsey McLean. "It's All Right With Me," arranged as a showcase of the band's hard swing capabilities and for Mr. Connick as swinging pianist and singer, found Mr. Connick pounding the piano in a display of pure rhythmic aggression and scatting at lightning speed in a high head-tone register.
"Buried in Blue," which ends the second act, is one of several numbers in the show in which the band is joined by strings, arranged and conducted by Marc Shaiman, the gifted young arranger and composer who is becoming the Nelson Riddle of his generation. The song, which Mr. Connick said was inspired by his mother's death when he was 13, is an elegy similar in mood to Gordon Jenkins's ballad "Goodbye" as arranged by Riddle for Mr. Sinatra, but it's even lusher. And Mr. Connick performed it with a touching gravity.
To follow Mr. Connick's musical adventures right now must be something like having tracked the activities of Orson Welles when he was Mr. Connick's age. The talent is major, the prospects unlimited, the dangers for derailment in egotism and in unworthy commercial sidetracks ever present.