What a Pair! Faith Prince & Jason Graae at 54 Below
The Prince and the Showboy

by Rob Lester

Faith Prince and Jason Graae did two shows last night and are near the end of a run of several days, but I picked up no signs of "cabaret fatigue" at last night's late show. Sparks flew along with quips. The time flew, too. The pair of pros on stage and in full command are musical theatre darlings Faith Prince and Jason Graae (now sporting a moustache above the grin). They know how to work a wink and work a crowd, holding forth at 54 Below, New York's newest nightclub, with its gorgeous d├ęcor full of classy and interesting details, framed portraits, friendly staff and great sightlines.

The warm applause that greeted the duo was as affectionate and upbeat as the mutual admiration society up on the stage. They have a history together, having met first in college in Cincinnati, as they told the audience. Faith, a year ahead, was a resident assistant and "welcoming committee" and they went to a dance together and were fast friends. If you have a long memory and history of theatregoing, you might have seen them share a stage back in the 1980s, Off-Off Broadway in Alias Jimmy Valentine and the cute, perky Off-Broadway Olympus on My Mind, which left behind a swell cast album. She played the rich producer's airheaded but enthusiastic wannabe show girl, "Delores in the chorus." And all these years later, it's about The Prince and the Showboy, as they've titled their terrific team act.

Perhaps never having met a pun he didn't like, Jason and his cat-that-swallowed-the-canary mischievous grin begins the act alone, singing "Someday My Prince Will Come" and other songs with her surname in the lyric, swirling into a big, spunky mega-medley. And they pluckily pluck two numbers from Bye Bye, Birdie, with "One Boy" adapted as "One Showboy," and "Put on a Happy Face" as one of the numbers sung shamelessly with a prominent lisp to make the last word "Faith." Of course, they could have gotten a two-for-one by changing the first word of that lyric from "gray" to "Graae," but they get to that switch in another famous show tune about being "stuck with a day that's ..." The bar of fun is set sky-high with this opener that also includes a glib strut through, of all things, a number very specifically tailored for Liza Minnelli way back when, about her name being spelled and pronounced wrong—"Liza with a 'Z'" ("Say 'Liza'"), as they promise a special night of cabaret. They deliver that, in spades.

Their show is a mix of solos and duets, as they come and go from the stage, each delivering a mock insult line to the audience upon the other's exit, with the running gag of the just-departed star calling out, "I heard that!" The crowd ate it up along with the tasty food served by an attentive but discreet staff. Though both are known as clowns and have superb comic timing, the serious selections are equally effective and well received. A particular highlight has Jason on the oboe, playing the very old sentimental number "Smiles" to lead into and be counterpoint to Faith singing "Smile." Her vocal, with its involved phrasing and knowing manner, is one of the best I've heard on this song.

Solo, Jason nails the hilarious unbalanced stalker song "To Excess," by the talented songwriting team of Kooman and Dimond. He had much of the crowd in stitches as he acted out the OCD fellow's justifications. Faith could do no wrong with this audience who toasted her when she toasted "The Ladies Who Lunch," which Prince dedicated to Elaine Stritch (who, Prince said, paid her a compliment earlier in her career in a dressing room before saying she had to pee). Each of the differently phrased Prince-isms on this Sondheim classic feels like a wise acting choice. And if it is possible to look classy, hip, and totally adorable all at the same time, Faith does that in her all-black ensemble look: with flowing layers, a flower-shaped bow in her hair which is dark with streaks, and high boots. (No, she doesn't reprise anything from her time of Broadway in revivals of Guys and Dolls, Bells Are Ringing or Little Me.) Separately, they bring riveting and focused performances to the William Finn trilogy of Falsettos shows, Faith having created the original female lead and Jason being a replacement, though they hadn't been in the Finn shows at the same time.

The centerpiece of the act is a set of Jerry Herman numbers, on their own and in a giant medley that ends with Faith's lusty and vibrant "Before the Parade Passes By" with Jason in counterpoint, tossing out mini-snippets from a great number of Herman faves. Her full-length solo of the Mame lament "If He Walked Into My Life" is set up by a discussion of Herman's writing for characters who were motherly, but not by biological birth-giving, and a brief but touching story about a comment by her son when he was young (he's approaching college age now). Although I would have enjoyed more roof-raising belt and drama on this, the more intimate take on this rueful piece of 20/20 hindsight works well, too. Everything Faith touches musically here seemed to turn into gold.

Followers of these performers will find some material they've done in the past. Two numbers from Faith's solo CD from 2000 are here, one also sung by her on the recording of a previous nightclub act on the songs of Mary Rodgers—it's "The Boy from ..." set up by a piano noodling of the song/genre that was its 1960s model, the bossa nova classic "The Girl from Ipanema." She finds new energies and laughs in that juicy hoot from The Mad Show with Stephen Sondheim's playful words. Jason recycles some items from his recent live all-Herman album, down to the patter about the great songwriter offering him a lead role by phone and his line about how he "peaked in Burbank." And Falsettos' "What More Can I Say?" is on his earlier live CD. It's exquisite here, proving beyond a doubt that this court jester has a strong and sweet singing voice.

Musical director Alex Rybeck, longtime colleague of both stars, brings his customary inventive arrangements and prodigious piano skills. And he gamely, again, becomes Jason's silently suffering foil for the smug "Popular," from Wicked, with bits of Graae shtick to which he has some deadpan reactions. Although I would have welcomed a truly all-new set, it is immensely entertaining and the retreads feel vital and involved. More patter and stories would have been welcome, too, but the zingers and doting anecdotes are dandy. So is the whole act. Catch their Saturday early or late show before they disappear from NYC for a while.

Faith Prince and Jason Graae at 54 Below, remaining performances Saturday, August 25 at 8:30pm and 11:00pm. Visit www.54below.com for more information.

Coming up at the venue are such Broadway notables as Tituss Burgess, Marin Mazzie, Tonya Pinkins, Maurice Hines, Linda Lavin with Billy Stritch, and the return of the official first act, Patti LuPone. See www.54below.com. 54 BELOW, 254 West 54th Street, Cellar, New York, NY 10019. Tickets available at TicketWeb.com, (866) 468-7619. For more information and questions, call the club directly at: (646) 476-3551.

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