It might be best to break this show down into components. Let's start with the superb list of songs performed. These are standards, nightclub songs of the '40s and '50s, but not the typical mix you might expect to hear. And each one is a gem. Yes, they start with Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," and there's the Gershwins' "Nice Work If You Can Get It," but we're also treated to Burt Bacharach and Hal David's lovely "The Story of My Life," "The Land Where the Good Songs Go" (Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse), "Too Close For Comfort" (Jerry Bock, George David Weiss, and Larry Holofcener), "Blame It On My Youth" (Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman) and beautiful "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II). You could strip away the story, and this would make a fine cabaret show, but here, each song fits within the story, but neatly so (no hitting over the head with symbolism). I'll credit the song selection to Bunin and Levine, and say that it is a key part of the success of this show.
The story is another key component done well. It's not an earth-shattering story, but neither is it predictable. It's compelling, expertly placed in period and, except toward the end where maybe things get a wee bit maudlin, it's impossible not go along with the ride. Besides a telling of Sam Bendrix's backstory, there's also a lesson in bartending (Martinis 101, delivered to the band, of course, and a demonstration on how to make the beautiful pousse-cafémade in a glass or, when necessary, a vase), as well as a deeper story of what it was like to be gay in 1958, or at least what it was like for Sam. Keith Bunin has carefully crafted this show (like that pousse-café); it's a treat to be able to sit back and enjoy a show without being distracted by plot holes or anachronisms.
Great songs and a great story, of course, are nothing without someone to put it all across. And Luke Macfarlane is absolutely sublime as Sam Bendrix. His work on television, and a part in the accomplished ensemble of the recent Broadway production of The Normal Heart, didn't quite prepare me for what he does here. Yes, he sings (and plays the cello!) just fine, but what is really impressive is how he carries the show for 100 minutes. It's not that it's a burden, and the band does play a part, but it really is all Sam (and all Luke), and the energy never flags. Not to mention how the charm factor is off the charts. A handsome guy, who is very natural and appealing as a club singer of the eranot a Rat Pack ring-a-ding club singer, but a sincere, earnest real guy singer who is comfortable with a microphone and an audience. The moves are all there; he doesn't seem to be acting like a nightclub singerhe just is one. The connection Macfarlane has with the audience, right from the start, is palpable. How well does he sing? In a local feature piece, it was stated that he hasn't sung since performing with a band in high school. But it's hard to believe he hasn't trained for this role. His style comes off a little like Tony DeSare, but Sam isn't "the guy you came to see," and Luke seems to fit right in character there: not a headliner, but he would be a pleasant surprise perfectly capable of erasing the disappointment if you had to "settle." Some songs are delivered solidly, with a great balance between strong and smooth. A few songs seem a bit out of his range in places, but it's not unreasonable to think he'll work out those details.
The sweetening components of the show are the expert bandgreat players always in characterand the cozy nightclub set by Tony Ferrieri. There's fine work from Angela M. Vesco (costume), Andrew David Ostrowski (lighting), and Brad Peterson (sound). The pieces all fit together so well, it's amazing that this is the first post-workshop production. With a little trimming of the last half hour (but don't cut any of the songs!), Sam Bendrix's gig at the Bon Soir has a great future.
Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir, a world premiere with music. By Keith Bunin. At the City Theatre through December 18. For performance and ticket information, call 412.431.CITY (2489) or visit www.citytheatrecompany.org/. The City is also hosting a one-night After Hours at the Bon Soir! following the December 16 performance of Sam Bendrix at the Bon Soir at 9:45pm. Billy Porter will host and special guests include Luke Macfarlane, Lenora Nemetz, Daphne Alderson, Chris Laitta, Bria Walker. Tickets for that event include a free drink and are $30 each ($25 for City subscribers).