Posted by: operatheaterink | March 29, 2011

Review: Nathan Gunn, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, March 29, 2011

Nathan Gunn Crosses Over Into Cabaret in Costa Mesa.

Opera Theater Ink, Nathan Gunn
SEEN MARCH 26, 2011

By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

I have to hand it to Nathan Gunn – he isn’t afraid to experiment. And experiment is just what he did in the Segerstrom Center’s Samueli Theater in Costa Mesa from March 24 to 27, and at the Café Argyle in Manhattan, where he is showcasing his cabaret act through April 16.

I for one have seen Gunn as Mozart’s Papageno and Rossini’s Figaro. And what a gay ol’ Papageno he made (“Die Zauberflôte,” LA Opera, Jan. 2009). He romped around the stage effortlessly, charming all the adults who probably bought tickets for their children thereafter.

Gunn has also made his mark in a 2008 semi-staged Lincoln Center version of “Camelot.” And he is set to play Ravenal in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Show Boat.”

A proponent of new opera — he played Paul in Seattle Opera’s recent premiere of “Amelia.” And he was Clyde Griffiths in the Metropolitan Opera’s “An American Tragedy.”

There was nothing left for Gunn to attempt, I guess, so why not a cabaret act?

The Samueli Theater is the perfect venue. It is not your average theater. It has a raised stage, but people can order drinks and beverages around tables of four. The relaxed atmosphere begs for low-key pop and jazz standards, and since Gunn’s CD “Just Before Sunrise” fit the bill, he gave the audience a taste of it. He began with Gene Scheer’s song of the same name and proceeded to other easy-listening ditties including Tom Waits’ “The Briar and the Rose,” Ben Moore’s “In the Dark Pine-Wood,” and a rhythmic “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” during which I found myself swaying from side to side imagining Ginger and Fred dancing in front of me.

Gunn took me back in time with Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In,” Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String,” a thoughtful rendition of “Home on the Range,” and a nostalgic “My Funny Valentine.”

For the retirees and golfers in Orange County, “The Golf Bug” was no doubt significant and witty.

The William Bolcom songs added variety although Gunn’s inebriated “George” was unappealing.

Pianist Julie Jordan Gunn accompanied her husband with a three-piece jazz band that included her brothers Jeremy and John Jordan. Although their style was appropriate for the more mellow arrangements, it was totally ill-suited to back Gunn’s “C’est Moi” and “If Ever I Would Leave You” from “Camelot.”

Nathan Gunn is an opera singer able to cross over into musical theater because he can act, move, is good-looking, has crisp diction, and can color his baritonal sound so that it fits the genre. He was equally effective with some of the standards, although his CD brought his tone level down a notch, which was preferable.

I have to ask, though: Why should we listen to Nathan Gunn sing with just half of his voice (mezza voce) when we know he has so much more to give? Did Robert Goulet do that? I was frustrated at times, always waiting.

Gunn’s style wasn’t quite right for the standards, and he held back on the show music, possibly because he wasn’t accustomed to the amplification he didn’t need. Yet the microphone was indeed warranted when he relayed a story to us or jested with his wife. The most talented cabaret artists can sit on a bar stool, speak quietly — almost intimately — into the microphone, and hold the audience spellbound. Barbra Streisand did it in 1963 at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles. I was there, and I will never forget it. A better-prepared sound plan between singer and technicians might have benefited Gunn’s overall effect. The intimate moments between singer and audience are what contribute to a cabaret act’s success.

Yet Gunn’s charisma and talent were always evident. His baritonal splendor was unmistakable when he sang “C’est Moi” and “If Ever I Would Leave You,” although during “C’est Moi,” I couldn’t decide if he was portraying Lancelot, the character, or if he was singing the song behind a mike as if to mock him. Julie Gunn’s quip “Cest toi” didn’t help matters. Whatever the intent, Gunn’s booming baritonal sound was what I came to hear, and I heard it. I just would have liked to have heard more of it.

When singing the Depression-era “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” (Gunn’s encore), he finally let loose. He was relaxed; his voice had intensity; and he displayed a freedom that we hadn’t seen or heard before.

The evening was one of hills and valleys with a performer who is undeniably one of the most sought-after and talented young American singers today. More care should have been taken to devise the program. It was a warm and cozy evening between a singer and his family, but nowadays audiences want something more memorable.