If you don't have plans for the Fourth Of July, consider spending the evening of Independence Day seeing a show that declares independence from traditional club acts. Jesse Tyler Ferguson will return to Joe's Pub in downtown Manhattan for his firecracker of a show, titled Adios Pantalones. I caught a performance of the same act on June 20 and found it to be a sparkler.
Right off the bat, you know Jesse won't be avoiding his geeky, gawky, goofy non-glamorous early years. Before the show starts, slides are shown of his youthful days performing at small theatres and at a theme park in costumes other performers might want to forget. Not Jesse. He embraces and laughs at his past, and uses it as material for his self-deprecating patter. There's even game young Jesse with his family theme park co-star, a giant costumed character of a cartoon coyote (don't ask!) featured over and over. (These photos and more, complete with playful comments, are available for viewing at his website, www.jessetylerferguson.com.) To say he has a sense of humor about his past would be an understatement. He clearly sees the absurdity in life and can laugh at himself now and then.
Still in the rosy glow of the success of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee in which he plays a loveable misfit kid, Jesse is on a high. The conceit of his Joe's Pub show is that he is trying to present his night club act the "right" way. His much-used special prop is a bright yellow book called Cabaret For Dummies. He pretends to be reading aloud from it, reeling off the rules about doing an act properly. It's a very entertaining wink at cabaret cliches ("Stool for ballad - check"). He acts pleased when he finds he's "ready" and his rubber face changes from attentive to dismayed when he stops dead in mid-sentence when things are not right. For example, the book has a list of cabaret "don'ts" and he is aghast to realize, too late, he's blown it by talking before the third song or doing the wrong kind of song at the wrong time. When the book mentions his band, he looks up as if he just noticed he has only a pianist.
Jesse's humor is even more appreciated as many of the songs he chose are on the serious side. The moods exist comfortably side by side and one doesn't upstage the other - quite a feat. All the material is by William Finn and Michael John LaChiusa. Though Finn wrote his current show, Jesse doesn't at all dwell on that and make it the Bee-all and end-all of his act. The only Spelling Bee song presented is "Woe Is Me," the tale of one of the female characters about her two gay fathers, and Jesse treats the audience to some of its cut lyrics. Fans of Finn fun who have the two CDs Elegies and Infinite Joy will hear a few familiar selections, such as "Republicans," "My Dogs" and the theater-centric "That's A Stupid Thing To Do" from The Royal Family. His LaChiusa selections included numbers from Little Fish, a show Jesse appeared in and which seems to hold a special place in his heart. That musical's sweet, low-key title song was our encore. (Jesse's handbook told him all about how to handle an encore.) Other numbers from this composer-lyricist included little-known pieces well suited to the act and the performer, such as "I'm A Fraud."
Jesse jumps into the character of each song as demanded by its lyric and musical mood, but never becomes so totally different from his own persona that the act seems schizophrenic or overly intense. He uses his look (lanky build, pale skin, carrot-red hair and lopsided grin) to its best advantage. His voice is more that of an actor-singer than a purist's "instrument," but he is comfortable and in charge vocally as well as in his general stage presence. His voice has more power than has been revealed in some of his character roles and the first couple of numbers.
Spelling Bee's musical director, Vadim Feitchner, is on piano and provides a willing straight man and foil for some gags. He plays along musically and comically, superbly on both counts. The night I attended, Jesse's Tony-winning co-star Dan Fogler was at ringside having a great time and another good friend, Lea DeLaria was in the house, laughing loudly and appreciatively at all the jokes, including one about her. Jesse reminisced about working with her in a show where many, including me, first noticed him: in the revival of On The Town. The charm and exuberance he revealed there are still very present in everything he does. His knowing, polished way of holding an audience is cleverly disguised as an in-the-moment impromptu confessional/chat. But make no mistake. This man knows what he's doing and needs no handbook of how to entertain, in or out of character. But what a character he is!
Adios Pantalones: The Music of William Finn and Michael John LaChiusa continues at Joe's Pub on July 4 at 9:30pm. For performance and ticket information, visit Telecharge.com.