The fact that Jack Bartholet has a big, flamboyant, impressive-sounding voice became evident a mere measure or two into "Nature Boy" (eden ahbez), the first number of his recent Duplex show, "Two Drink Minimum." The young singer let loose with a battery of rafters-shaking high-tenor notes, delivered with theatrical flourishes. He is a born belter—no doubt about that.
The show was Bartholet's NYC solo cabaret debut—something he made abundantly clear during the first 15 or so minutes of the set. He spoke at length about his fears regarding branching out into cabaret from musical theatre: Was he worthy? Was he ready? Did he need to present a program with a stronger thematic foundation? Bartholet's updated performance of Jeff Bowen's "Die, Vampire, Die!" viewed such nagging misgivings as nasty monsters inside the performer's head: Dracula-ish naysayers that needed to be vanquished. With all the obstacles in his way, Bartholet marveled that he was even up there on a cabaret stage. Performing! In New York City! At this very moment!
For a while it seemed the entire evening would in fact be centered thematically on the neuroses that accompanied the preparation of this cabaret show. Fortunately, during the latter part of the set, he broke away from this tendency toward self-referentiality, concentrating more on communicating musically with the people that had come to hear him.
A turning point was a sequence focusing on the ubiquitous presence of the word/name "Jack"—during which Bartholet gave a special shout-out-to the namesake that seems to be his kindred spirit: Jack McFarland from TV's Will and Grace, an over-the-top, indulgent livewire famous for his own campy stints at the Duplex. This segment concluded with an entertaining and lively version of "Jacky (La Chanson de Jacky)" (Jacques Brel, Gérard Jouannest, Mort Shuman). Bartholet seemed truly to be having a fine time here. And, again, it was good to see him move away from the tiresome "meta" ploy of making his show about the making of his show. His inclusion of "Noise" (Gavin Creel, Robbie Roth)—sung to honor the pioneering spirit of the gay rights movement—found him looking even further beyond his own skin.
What Bartholet didn't move away from was regularly displaying his vigorous young vocal cords. But while they are indeed remarkable, I'd advise him to cut back significantly on the prolonged loud singing. Five or six of those sustained piercing notes sprinkled throughout an evening can be exciting. But when you start a song at a relatively high decibel level, you're going to feel the need to keep topping yourself. And that seldom ends well.
Remember young Liza Minnelli's recording of Kander and Ebb's "Sing Happy" from the cast album of Flora, the Red Menace? She builds the excitement level (and volume level) in the song a bit too soon, so that by the time she nears the final bars, she has lapsed into hollering. I wasn't surprised that Bartholet included "Sing Happy" in his program. Unfortunately he boxed himself into a corner not unlike Minnelli's. The fact that he sang the number not in a theatrical context but in an intimate room compounded the problem.
There were passages during the set—a few passages—when he sang in a more reined-in fashion. He did so, for instance, toward the end of his rendition of Jay Brannan's "Square One." And while it was uneven, his version of Jerry Herman's "Ribbons Down My Back"—accompanied solely by percussionist Chris Schultz—was an admirable experiment in minimalism. (Schultz, pianist and musical director William TN Hall, and sprightly backup singer Vanessa Dunleavy were welcome presences throughout the evening.)
Bartholet should view subtlety as an expansive, wide-open territory to be mined. It will make him a much more interesting, expressive singer. He can always bookmark a measure here and there in which to release his inner Merman.
"Two Drink Minimum"
The Duplex – October 15, December 2, 16