By Glenn McDonald of the News & Observer
For a remarkably fun 90 minutes Saturday, Harry Connick Jr. — singer, pianist, composer and ace showman — delivered a musical time-space collision of Broadway and New Orleans.
He presented the world premiere of “Harry Connick Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter,” his new Broadway-bound stage special, to a packed house at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Saturday’s matinee was the first of three Durham shows this weekend, designed as kind of a fully-functional warm-up for the Broadway run at New York’s Nederlander Theatre in December. Connick has plans to take the show on the road for a national tour after that.
The show is aptly titled, and then some. Connick fronts a 28-person orchestra for most of the show, powering through a dozen classic songs from the Cole Porter songbook.
The packed house was on Connick’s side from the jump, clearly jazzed to be present for the world premiere.
The production successfully blends theatrical elements with an otherwise relatively straightforward concert approach. It’s the first time Connick — a Tony-nominated veteran of multiple Broadway productions — has taken what he calls a “deep dive” into another artist’s repertoire.
But the show is more than just a retrospective. The award-winning singer clearly has piloted a very personal trajectory through the vastness of the Porter songbook. These are the songs that resonate for him, and it’s a thrill to watch Porter’s classic songs meld with Connick’s New Orleans vibe, almost in slow motion.
The production is bedazzled throughout with various theatrical flourishes — film projection elements, a couple of scripted dialogue bits and a handsome lighting design. Aside from some minor sound level and video sync problems, the show on Saturday was technically impressive. There’s plenty to look at in the new show. The drummer was having a party all his own up on that riser.
In the end, it was the music that mattered, all those fabulous songs echoing down through the years. (The new songs are featured on Connick’s upcoming album, “True Love: A Celebration of Cole Porter,” set for release Oct. 25.)
Cole’s immortal “Anything Goes” served as a kind of thematic bookend for the show. Connick opened with the number, then came back to it later, and on a notional level, it suggested all the fun to be had in between. At one point, Connick and a few of the musicians moseyed downstage to a rolling set of a Bourbon Street bar for Connick’s own “Take Her to the Mardi Gras.”
But for most of the show Connick was in crooner mode, channeling Porter with fine voice and intricate phrasings. Connick’s arrangements revealed some lovely new facets to old gems like “You Do Something To Me” and “I Love Paris” and a delicate version of “Why Can’t You Behave.”
For “Night and Day,” Connick dug a little deeper, sitting at a desk to demonstrate how he approached the arrangements and orchestration, with overhead sheet music and live drop-ins from the band. This sequence was of one of two clear highlights to the show, the other being too good to spoil. Let’s just say it involves tap dancing, and Mr. Porter himself, and the longest piano solo you’ve ever seen.
Like any responsible showman, Connick tossed in a couple local references — the Durham downtown eatery Mateo Bar de Tapas got a shout-out. He also noted that several of the orchestra musicians were recruited locally.
Overall, Connick and his collaborators have created a spirited and generous tribute show with several delightful surprises. Hey, Broadway — heads up! We’re sending a little something your way.