Sierra Boggess, Broadway’s high-flying soprano ingénue du jour, had exited the stage moments ago and the lounge within 54 Below was buzzing with electricity. Soon after last-call, James Barbour stumbled on to the stage, mimicking a denizen barfly who zipped along the pub-crawl in Hell’s Kitchen.
Clearing his throat and sipping on chamomile, the operatic crooner introduced himself as both the jester, born to entertain, and the testifier. The night was filled with belly laughs, industry jabs and Christmas carols. "Some of the best were written by Jewish composers," Barbour noted.
The night got off to an early start with Barbour giving a glimpse of his ups and downs in and out of Broadway’s musical theatre scene.
"I tend to play dark and brooding characters. Every character I’ve ever played died or was brutally maimed, and the one show where I played a character who didn’t die or was brutally maimed closed [soon after] it opened," Barbour fussed, referring to the Warren Carlyle directed "A Tale of Two Cities" in 2008.
"I’m like the Kyra Sedgwick of Broadway. You know: that show "The Closer?" Barbour quipped later, indicating what was supposed to be his involvement with the ill-fated German dark pop musical "Rebecca" which did not open on Broadway this year. Middleman and stockbroker Mark C. Hutton was arrested and charged with fraud after fabricating fictitious investors and received $60,000 in fees.
During the 90-minute show, Barbour shared insights from his marriage to his half-Japanese wife and their decision to have children late in life, his constant travels from the Golden State to the Empire State, and instilling the wisdom of his deceased parents into his children who never got to meet them.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the night was Barbour’s recitation of his father’s survival during wartime. After sustaining a gunshot blast to the femoral artery, Barbour’s father was thrown into the "dead pile"; a heap of a soldiers whose condition were considered fatal or were deceased. Had it not been for a cleric walking by reading their last rites, his father would have passed and Barbour would be nonexistent. Barbour reflected on this, ensuring the crowd that this was not only a profession, but also his life’s work. That he was born to do this. With a few carefully selected tunes, he showed the audience why.
Barbour’s rendition of Dennis DeYoung’s "Who Will Love This Child" from "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" could melt the most frozen of hearts. That resonant, rich baritone, with its quicksilver vibrato and velveteen timbre induced chills. Mixed with his smooth delivery, charm and warm persona, Barbour demonstrated not only his glossy polish ingrained from various residencies on the Great White Way, but also showcased his unique, pragmatic leading man bravura.
His excellent rendition of standard "Silent Night" and Josh Groban’s "Believe" may have carved smiles into faces, but it was Barbour’s show-stopping rendition of Frank Wildhorn’s "Bring Me Giants" from "Cyrano de Bergerac: The Musical" that created a stir. A dedication to Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, the song not only lifted spirits but also erased any assumption that Barbour wasn’t the real thing.
The concert wasn’t without talent backing him up. Barbour’s guests included the smoky angelic tenor of Stephen Wallem, who appeared in "Anna Nicole, The Opera" opposite Barbour, and the vocal talents of Tony Harnell, frontman of the Norwegian glam metal outfit TNT. Harnell’s raspy, hellfire-infused chest belting vocal spray alone spanned over 4 octaves during his rendition of the band’s hard rock ballad "Northern Lights" from TNT’s third studio album, "Tell No Tales." The piano driven number, both with operatic and rock star pizazz, inspired whistles.
On Thursday, December 12, Barbour’s guests will include two-time Tony nominee Mary Testa, who appeared alongside Barbour in the critically acclaimed "Anna Nicole, The Opera," and the soulful vocal gymnastics of R&B powerhouse Jesse Stevenson. Barbour praised Stevenson’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah," which can be viewed on YouTube.
What should be most applauded is Barbour’s eye for talent. While the 47-year-old actor-singer cheered on his peers and colleagues throughout the night, he also has his eye on up-and-coming talent, like that of Carrie Underwood, who recently starred in NBC’s "The Sound Of Music Live!"
"Here she is, a major pop star taking a risk," Barbour said about Underwood’s social media backlash. "I appeared in "Beauty & The Beast" with Toni Braxton [as The Beast]. Here was this major pop star, performing on Broadway for the first time. When people take a risk, I usually applaud them. I mean, if you were in that position, would you take that risk?"
With an impressive list of credits that includes "Urinetown," the ’04 revival of "Assassins, " and the ’94 revival of "Carousel," Barbour is all about taking risks. Only time will tell when he will take another.
"James Barbour Live" runs through Dec. 12 at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St, Cellar. For information or tickets, call 646-476-3551 or visit http://54below.com/artist/james-barbour/