I'd like to send a thank-you note to whomever it was who had to cancel a May 2nd booking at Joe's Pub because a very lucky audience had the chance to see a stunning show by last-minute substitute Michael Arden. Well, not literally last minute: he had about a week to ponder, plan, prepare, and pick material. The only obvious last-minuteness was rushing from another show he was in earlier that night (Friends of Jenny Giering) and using a lyric sheet for a song because he had finished writing it that afternoon. The date didn't happen during an easy week. Besides the aforementioned concert, he also was in the Songs For A New World concert the day before, had house guests from out of town, and was helping another friend prepare for a move to California. If he was sleep-deprived, it didn't show in his voice, which sounded healthy and full-toned, with some phrase-ending notes that were sustained with power and "pow".
The actor-singer-composer-lyricist has been busy in the two years since he bid farewell to his studies at Julliard, where he'd been granted an acting scholarship. He made a pretty big splash in Big River, soon found himself with a devoted following in the musical Bare and was chosen for the title role in Pippin for special performances on both coasts. Someday he'll be old enough to be nostalgic about these experiences (he's only barely old enough to legally have a drink at Joe's Pub), but for this concert he did not draw from those very fresh memories. But I'm not complaining a bit: everything he performed on this evening was compelling.
Opening with Adam Guettel's atmospheric "Life Is But A Dream," Michael Arden's show started off with a number that is pure and intense at the same time. "Intense" is perhaps the operative word for the show, as the songs confronted, explored, and stared down deep emotions. Performed theatrically as character vignettes, they commanded attention and got that from an attentive capacity crowd. This is the kind of material and performance that don't emotionally let listeners off the hook, but rather hooks them in. Naked honesty was the order of the night, but never in a way that flirted with self-indulgent showboating or the dreaded cabaret-as-therapy category. The singer's voice, equally effective when singing with precise purity of tone or when unleashing power, is exciting and dramatic.
In a set of 14 passionate songs (including three by guest singers), you'd think the audience would need a change-of-pace "light" number, but cleverly, the in-between-song talk provided such respite instead. Down-to-earth and even self-deprecating comments allowed for smiles, a quick anecdote or two, and a glimpse of the person who'd been so fully cloaked in different characters. Arden can irreverently introduce a selection by cracking, "Here's a song about a dude who's dying. That's all you need to know," and then immediately transform into another person, turning on tragedy as easily as you'd turn on a light switch.
Choosing material from contemporary songwriters, he gave us a few of the best: Jason Robert Brown (the exultant "King of the World"), John Bucchino ("I'm Not Waiting" and "This Moment") and an outstanding Ricky Ian Gordon/Jessica Molaskey collaboration, "Cradle And All." The latter choice was inspired and seemed perhaps the most revealing, in contrast to some of the others which, as noted, were done as portraits of other people. Reprising the Jenny Giering piece he'd done in her concert a few hours earlier, "Sea Prayers," the singer chose to serve the song rather than himself by starting over when he felt something wasn't quite right. With grace and humor, he asked his pianist to begin again and he nailed it.
The centerpiece of the evening was a group of selections by an excellent young theatre composer-lyricist named ... Michael Arden. His songwriting shows much the same intelligence and fearlessness he brings to his performance. His scores for Easter Rising and Ripley offer a performer opportunities to show a character's joys and fears with dynamic music and precise, well-crafted lyrics. This was well demonstrated as three guest artists each came out to sing a solo. His talented, powerfully-voiced, polished colleagues (all personal friends) were Santino Fontana, Arielle Doneson, and Natalie Joy Johnson, a co-star from Bare. The only missed opportunity was a duet with one or two of them.
Ripley is based on the novel (published in 1955) and darkly entertaining 1999 film starring Matt Damon, The Talented Mr. Ripley. It won't take a genius casting agent to realize that the talented Mr. Arden is perfect casting for the boyish boy-next-door who has a lot bubbling beneath the surface and could explode at any moment. Indicating that he's still in the early stages of writing, Arden smiled after one Ripley show-stopping blast of vocal dynamite, and said, "Coming not soon to a theatre near you."
Adding immeasurably to the impact were the first-rate musicians. Pianist/arranger Matt Richardson is the perfect partner, and Christian Hebel on violin and Peter Sachon on cello played exquisitely, all three adding new layers of drama and complementing each other and the vocal lines with supreme musical skill.
An encore of Billy Joel's "Lullabye" was a well-chosen goodnight serenade to a sated but elated crowd. Although some of the songs involved rage, regret or loss, Michael Arden's secret is that he has a way of making it all life-affirming. An undercurrent of hope and a character's desire to understand and grow comes through, with nearly everything he emotes. This Joe's Pub "sub" knows subtext. And boy, can he sing!