‘Glee’ star makes splashy debut at Cabaret

Posted by admin on January 23, 2013

By Tom Alvarez, Indianapolis Performing Arts Examiner
October 15, 2012

For those who thought they were going to see a typical cabaret crooner, they couldn’t have been more surprised than when they experienced Jonathan Groff’s versatile and highly energetic performance at the Cabaret at the Columbia Club during his 9:30 p.m. show, “An Evening with Jonathan Groff,” Saturday, Oct. 13. It was the second of two shows (the first was at 7 p.m.) Groff performed at the popular downtown Indianapolis night spot.

Groff is best known for his role as Jessie St. James on “Glee,” the hit Fox TV series, and for his Tony-nominated role as Melchior Gabor in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway.

Groff’s Indy appearance marked only the second time he has presented a cabaret show or “concert” as he referred to it. The first was at Joe’s Pub in New York City in June, 2010. Singing a mix of R&B, pop, standards and show tunes — a few from those he has appeared in — Groff was accompanied by pianist and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell, guitarist Matt Hinkley and drummer Larry Lelli.

Gregarious and free-spirited, Groff bantered often with Campbell, with whom he enjoyed an easy rapport. Both of them regaled the crowd with amusing anecdotes about the people they have worked with, including Lea Michele, Julie Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth and others.

Groff also freely interacted with the audience, asking questions throughout his act, including an inquiry as to where those in attendance were from. As it turned out, there were not only Indianapolis fans present but also some from other cities and even a young lady from Brazil.

Such was Groff’s informal manner that many members of the audience felt free to shout out questions and comments directly to him, after which he offered to buy drinks for several of them. One fan even offered to buy Groff a drink. Telling her that he preferred Jameson (Irish whiskey) on the rocks, she later brought his drink to him on stage. Though the program itself was structured, Groff’s comments were anything but scripted, which opened the door for hilarious spontaneity between songs performed during a 90-minute set without intermission.

Possessing a distinctively rich tone, as well as a commanding voice and formidable range common to Broadway-caliber performers, Groff also showed considerable depth in his acting skills as he effortlessly switched moods, whether tenderly singing ballads or interpreting up-tempo songs with intensity.

Groff literally burst onto the stage when he opened with “The Life of the Party,” from the musical “The Wild Party,” which was followed by “Moving Too Fast” by Jason Robert Brown. Proving that his show was going to be anything but predictable, Groff also sang “Everybody’s Talkin’,” recorded by Harry Nilsson for the 1969 film “Midnight Cowboy.” He also did a medley of songs from “The Sound of Music,” a show which Groff toured with in a non-Equity company early in his career and which he says brought him to Indiana two other times during stops in Bloomington and South Bend.

Given that Groff performed what could be considered a challenging repertoire of songs during the second of back-to-back shows on the same evening, it was to his credit that he was able to maintain a consistently high-level vocal quality. However, as his set wore on it was clear that his voice was showing strain as he hit some sour notes a couple of times.

Such minor flaws, however, did not detract from the overall performance by a thoroughly engaging and entertaining showman during an evening of highlights that also included a tribute to Andy Williams in “Moon River,” featuring a lovely piano solo by Mitchell; “Left Behind,” his character’s song in “Spring Awakening”; and “Thank You for the Music” by Abba.

In addition, Groff, who is a native of Lancaster, Pa., home to a large Amish community, told the audience about his father’s family, whose origins are Mennonite, and shared his affection for the religious group and many of its members whom he knew growing up. Telling the audience that he had discovered that Indiana also has a large Mennonite community, he then introduced his tribute to the Amish, and after which he went to the side of the stage and donned a large brimmed black hat, black coat and fake beard prior to launching into “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise,” an outrageously irreverent but hilarious parody of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.”

Groff, who is openly gay and reportedly dating actor Zachary Quinto, dreamily sang “I Got Lost in His Arms,” from “Annie Get Your Gun,” as his encore piece. Leaving one to speculate whether the tune was perhaps a dedication to Quinto, Groff’s performance of the song was also a reminder of how much the times have fortunately changed, enough so that men can now sing songs written for women without having to change pronouns.

For information about upcoming Cabaret at the Columbia Club 2012-2013 season performances call (317) 275-1169 or visit www.thecabaret.org.

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