It was like watching Clark Kent turn into Superman.
For the first half of his Broadway concert, Harry Connick Jr., wearing a dark suit and tie, dutifully performed the standards that brought him pop success more than two decades ago. Jazzily crooning to the accompaniment of a big band such songs as "The Way You Look Tonight," "Hey There," "All the Way" and, of course, "It Had To Be You" from the "When Harry Met Sally" soundtrack, he skillfully fulfilled the romantic demands of his swooning female fans.
But it was after the intermission, when he re-emerged sans jacket and tie, that his true identity was revealed. Sitting at a newly appeared upright piano and pounding out boogie-woogie rhythms, he displayed a sheer joyfulness that revealed where his musical heart truly lies.
That exuberance continued for the rest of the evening as he played the sort of New Orleans-style jazz that gets toes tapping and butts moving. He looked like he was particularly enjoying himself in his duets with the terrific trombonist Lucien Barbarin, a born ham whose brazen flirtation with a bodacious woman in the front row became a running gag.
Connick also displayed a hugely appealing charm and self-deprecating dry humor, one point even making fun of his short-lived Broadway musical flop "Thou Shalt Not." ("I had to go to Costco to get a shelf for all those Tonys," he deadpanned.)
“This is huge,” Harry Connick Jr. declared on Thursday evening at the Neil Simon Theater, where he made his first Broadway concert appearance in 20 years in a show that runs through July 29. Huge would describe not only the musical forces amassed on the stage — a swing band on one side, a string section on the other and in the center a grand piano that Mr. Connick pounced on with ferocious vigor — but also Mr. Connick’s undiminished determination, at 42, to do it all.
Taking control of everything has meant singing, playing, songwriting, arranging, orchestrating and bandleading, all pointed toward the goal of embodying something like a fusion of Frank Sinatra (and Sinatra’s greatest arranger, Nelson Riddle); Elvis Presley; Peter Allen (by way of Professor Longhair); and Frank Loesser reconceived in the spirit of New Orleans. And that ignores his movie career as a sympathetic leading man who can pivot on a dime and play a scary sociopath.
The show revealed that (no surprise) Crescent City is, now and forever, the touchstone and wellspring of Mr. Connick’s creativity. The sustained fun began only after the curtain rose for the second act to find him playing a tinny upright piano on a nightclub set. And when the great New Orleans trombonist Lucien Barbarin strolled onto the stage and used a mute that made the instrument growl, jabber, cluck and shout as Mr. Connick played, any anxieties the star might have had about living up to some show business luminaries faded amid the sheer joy of their spontaneous interplay.
The two men not only played but also danced, shimmying side by side and cutting up. Joined later by the trumpeter Mark Braud, they made a joyful noise that had the audience stamping and cheering. It was the next-best thing to Mardi Gras, whose party atmosphere was celebrated in several numbers near the end of the show.
The first act, in which Mr. Connick sang both standards and originals in a more formal context, suggested a movie going in and out of focus. For his signature song, “It Had to Be You,” he found and held a groove that might be described as a slow bounce and into which he interpolated hot Erroll Garner-like note clusters. With his insinuating voice, which became blatantly seductive the lower he sang, he scored a knockout. In a version of “Hey, There,” from “Pajama Game,” he asserted his power as a roustabout Broadway crooner. “You Don’t Know Me,” from his best pop album, “Only You,” gave the song a defining profile in an arrangement that evoked the sound of an old Brook Benton record.
Mr. Connick’s slurred enunciation, pillowy timbre and intuitive phrasing show him to be closer to Presley in his vocal sound than to Sinatra. Rhythmically, however, he remains a Sinatra acolyte. The Ol’ Blues Eyes he conjures (adding some of Dick Haymes’s moist heat) is the aggressive later edition, who liked to punch up the rhythm with staccato exclamations.
Especially as an arranger, Mr. Connick favors broad musical strokes — sudden roaring fanfares and blasts of noise — over more refined gestures. More often than not, the instrumental choirs call and respond rather than blend. Strings are conventionally used in pop as a textural ingredient to deepen a mood and to add color. During much of his concert, they were deployed like the brass and horns, often making for a sound that was murky, cluttered and expressively undefined.
Mr. Connick’s rough-hewn, swing-driven aesthetic is ultimately grounded in New Orleans ragtime, blues and boogie-woogie traditions. He may go to Las Vegas, Hollywood and Broadway, but he is finally a proud native son.
After a reasonably expert first act, Harry Connick, Jr. opens the second by trading in his Steinway for a battered honkytonk piano and giving us a New Orleans-style "Sweet Georgia Brown" that is easily the most remarkable demonstration of musicality presently on display on Broadway. Assaulting the keys, beating percussively on the pedals, smacking the sideboard and crooning away, he also provides a dazzling drum break without a drum. He and his band then top this with not one but a handful of cyclonic numbers. Connick, in concert, packs such dynamite that those "Jersey Boys" across the street seem positively sedate.
This is Connick's third Main Stem appearance. He demonstrated a crowd-pleasing presence in 1990 as a fresh-faced twenty-three year old in "An Evening with Harry Connick, Jr." at the Lunt, and demonstrated full musical comedy talent when he buoyed the 2006 revival of "The Pajama Game." "Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway" starts out seeming like a standard touring gig, but Broadway is very much on the star's mind. Connick's self-effacing patter, breezily charming at first, turns personal; he discusses his lost Tony Award to the guy from that show across the street, "Jersey Boys" ("apparently, he was a lot better than I was") and inserts several rueful mentions of "Thou Shalt Not," the ill-fated Susan Stroman-helmed Broadway musical for which he provided the score in 2001 ("it sucked, man"). That said, he sees fit to raise the roof with one of that show's tunes, "Take Her to the Mardi Gras."
Contributing to the magic of the second act is Lucien Barbarin, whom Connick introduces as one of the great New Orleans trombonists. Barbarin quickly stakes his claim; the pair's take on "St. James Infirmary Blues" is astoundingly good, with Connick pounding away and Barbarin sounding like a husky, mewling kitten that's swallowed a kazoo. The pair continue with four successive knockouts, with Connick's main musicians -- Jerry Weldon on sax, Neal Caine on bass, Arthur Latin on drums – pulled from the twenty-piece band for exceptional solo after exceptional solo. (Trumpeter Mark Braud came down from the bandstand for one spot, in the finale, and blew off what was left of the roof.)
Connick himself has provided the swinging orchestrations, and he graciously salutes his soloists by name. The ten strings are industriously employed in the first act, but by the end of the second sit jealously watching as the soloists and the rest of the brass section get to have all the fun. Connick interrupted the opening night to praise his wife and three daughters, as only a lovesick dad can do. He even bowed to eight-year-old Charlotte's insistence that he bring her up on stage to tell a joke. Which she did, demonstrating cool fearlessness and canny timing.
The boy from New Orleans professes a bit of nervousness facing Broadway once more, but he needn't. Prducers take note: He's a natural with all the tools for musical comedy stardom. "Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway" runs for thirteen perfs over two weeks at the Simon, which still seems to be in booking limbo while awaiting the promised-but-delayed arrival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Never Dies." If business is brisk, Connick and his tiptop musicians might easily ease back into town for a holiday week or two. With a show this good, Harry can certainly count on a large chunk of repeat biz at premium prices.