Cabaret Hotspot Legacy Review

ReView: Jeff Harnar @ Feinstein’s/54 Below

by | Nov 23, 2021 | ReViews: National, ReViews: New York

Jeff Harnar
I Know Things Now
Feinstein’s/54 Below
November 10, 2021

Jeff Harnar embodies cabaret.  Svelte, handsome and completely at home in the spotlight he inspires the kind of relaxed expectation in the audience which only the most polished, experienced performer can engender.  Mr. Harnar also clearly has an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of Steven Sondheim.  How does one person fit all that music inside his head?  (time for the old saw … “Practice!  Practice!  Practice!”)

At Feinsteins/54 Below, Mr. Harnar received a resounding ovation as he bounded onto the stage.  Accompanist and partner-in-cabaret Jon Weber kicked off the evening with a rousing, honky-tonk instrumental of “Boadway Baby.”  After this upbeat opener, Mr. Harnar moved into the music of Into the Woods, which music featured throughout the show, setting the tone of thought and action.  Finding strikingly different ways of singing familiar music and keeping it all in musical/emotional/philosophical ‘tune’ is a difficult task, yet one which presented no impediment to Mr. Harnar.  Hence “I Know Things Now” becomes a sly aside tinged with sexy innuendo.  As Mr. Harnar eased into the song “More” he gave the word’s double, possibly triple, meaning.  When the Wolf at last appears, he is, well, a wolf, sinuously on the make, to the tune of a fabulously burlesque arrangement.  Mr. Harnar dared the audience to go along with the vibe, and of course they did.

Mr. Harnar sings not just to the crowd but to each individual.  He engages fully with the audience.  His onstage presence owes much of its shine to his interpretation and understanding of lyric, but this sophistication is equally matched by the quality of his lyrical baritone voice.  He spends much of his time singing in a less performative manner, inviting the audience to him, utilizing a powerful, more expansive sound sparingly – because he can.  It makes the moments he chooses to open up vocally all the more telling.

In  “Old Friend” Mr. Harnar made the transition from straightforward, authoritative tone to a more vulnerable, internal space without a hiccup.  He demonstrates little of the artifice that can be endemic of cabaret without sacrificing any showmanship.  Mr. Harnar’s performance, repertoire and arrangements feel deeply personal, reflecting concrete intention and a deep understanding of not only Sondheim’s music, but also the medium of cabaret itself.  As he said, “The words and music are Stephen Sondheim’s, but the story is mine.”

A cheerful “Live Alone and Like It” (from the film Dick Tracy)  segued cleverly into a sarcasm-laced “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” (Company).  How à propos.  After all, Company centers around Bobby, who lives alone, boasting that he likes it, until he discovers that actually he does not.  Discovery characterized Mr. Harnar’s performance throughout, whether musically or narratively in each song, or those he made moment-to-moment as a performer.  In smashing ballads like “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened to Me” (Bounce) and “Losing My Mind” (Follies) Mr. Harnar drew more than one tear from the audience.  And then it was off into another realm, including a near vaudevillian mash-up.  He does a great Jimmy Durante!  When you look like a boyish film star that is no easy feat.  Nor is it easy to breathe new life into “Send in the Clowns.”(Follies)  Yet he does so. Mr. Harnar has the skill to take on a song that has been over-sung in cabarets everywhere and make it sound fresh.  Thoughtful and focused, he shades new meaning out of the lyric, teasing us with his nearly spoken performance of most of the song.  When he leans into the melody at last, it is so satisfying.

In yet another unique twist on the familiar, Sweeney Todd receives an almost shockingly uptempo treatment.  Syncopated à la Dave Brubeck, the swinging arrangement built to a fabulous jazz break.  Accompanist and pianist extraordinaire Jon Weber took the moment to a new height, flashing major chops, his fingers flying dramatically up and down the keyboard with expert ease.   Such consistently interesting choices elevate cabaret from what could be ‘just’ a delightful evening of beautifully sung music to something more compelling.  Indeed, the very concept of choice features throughout Mr. Harnar’s show – in the choice of repertoire, the intention of the moment, and the frequent appearance of bits of Into the Woods (a musical centering around the relationship of choice to consequence).  With this kind of thoughtful curation of music Jeff Harnar and Director Sondra Lee have created a coherent theatrical event.

Lighting in regal reds, greens and purples against the gold walls of Feinstein’s/54 Below added a wow factor.  Indeed, stage lighting is a singer’s other onstage partner in crime.  The saturated hues gave depth to contrasting ‘lights down’ moments as well.  The opulence of cabaret adds a touch of “More”  to any evening, and as Mr. Harnar enjoins the audience in song to hold out for “More” one is ready to go along.  Life is More.  Music is More.  Jeff Harnar is More.   #cabaretgoals.


Photo Credits:
Featured Photo – Maryann Lopinto
Internal Photos – David Goodman


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