A handful of months ago, I found myself pulling into the parking lot of a JCC in New Jersey. It was frigid outside, but inside, where Kate Baldwin and Aaron Lazar were starring in a production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Bridges of Madison County, there was such heat, such fiery passion on that stage we could have been sitting directly on the sun. It was remarkable alchemy: two performers with a long history ripping into one of the best scores of the past 15 years. This Bridges was, in many ways, more overtly horny than the original production, which, I know sounds impossible, but the particular chemistry between these two actors had a grasping, tactile, sweaty energy. At the time, it seemed like lightning in a bottle.
Well, lighting has struck (at least) twice. Baldwin and Lazar have teamed up with music director Luke Frazier to craft a duo cabaret show, which they premiered at 54 Below last week. That scintillating chemistry is still there, tipping sexy when they bring back the Bridges tunes, but mostly living in a more flirtatious, joshing place.
They have worked together for twenty years or so, with large gaps in between, but their history is evident in the ways they interact with each other, in the winking and nudging casualness of their banter. There’s a recurring bit where they explain the plots of very convoluted musicals and cap it off with “Musicals are awesome.” Baldwin talks about seeing Follies as a teenager and thinking, “How come the dance numbers aren’t better and why are all the old people crying?” There is an overriding playful energy to the evening; they seem to be having as much fun as we are.
In addition to their singular renditions of the Bridges songs “One Second and a Million Miles”, “Falling Into You”, and a shattering “Always Better” from Baldwin, their set list also features a couple songs from their breakout roles. Baldwin performs a solo, bossa nova arrangement of “Old Devil Moon” from Finian’s Rainbow, pulling out the sultrier tones of the Yip Harburg and Burton Lane tune. Lazar follow up with an impassioned “Il Mondo Era Vuoto” from Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza, a role he definitively performed on the PBS broadcast. Baldwin has had 13 years with “Old Devil Moon” and Lazar has had 17 with “Il Mondo…” and it shows in their attention to the lyrics and in the ease with which these songs flow from their voices.
The majority of the evening is devoted to a series of songs where they explore roles they’d like to take on, together and separately. The set list shows a pair of people who know themselves very well. They know their strengths and what kinds of roles would challenge them and help them grow. They also know what we’d like to see them do.
With Baldwin on the steps by the bar and Lazar on the stage, they perform a barnbusting “There Once Was a Man” from The Pajama Game. Richard Adler and Jerry Ross’s music is intense and driving, circulating energy between the two characters. Because of the space between them during that number, their electricity shoots out over the audience. We are caught in the crossfire of their chemistry. Later, they perform “A Little Priest” from Sweeney Todd with Baldwin, in particular, really digging into Stephen Sondheim’s lyrical jokes. Watch her in the section where Lovett tries to stump Sweeney’s rhymes–it’s a masterful performance.
Sondheim makes a couple other appearances in the show as well, mainly because both actors want to play several of his characters. Lazar delivers a touching “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. Perhaps it’s that Lazar is a bit older than people who usually play George, but he brought a weight to the sentiment of Sondheim’s lyric that often escapes younger singers. His George has been trying harder and longer to complete the hat. Baldwin crafted a full arc in her performance of “Could I Leave You?” from Follies, letting anger give way to frustration give way to hopelessness and circle back to anger. She lets the lower sections of the song roll around in her chest voice, a deep, delicious, give-no-fucks kind of sound. It was a fully realized performance that could (and should) be seen in an actual production.
At the end, they reunite for another Brown duet, this time “I’d Give It All For You” from Songs for a New World, the latter half of that title lending the cabaret show its name. Brown’s big, dramatic duets like this one and the songs from Bridges are emotional landmines. The singers step on them and they detonate inside the audience. Both Baldwin and Lazar also have that quality. They love musical theatre so much and that love hits the audience directly in the soul. I changed a flight to make it back to the city in time for their closing performance last week and I am infinitely grateful that I did. It was a truly spectacular evening at 54 Below.