The last time I saw Nicolas King perform was at a benefit at least 10 years ago, when the then ten-year-old joined Liza Minnelli for a charming duet of “When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose,” a song written in 1914 by Percy Wenrich and Jack Mahoney and popularized again in the 1942 film For Me and My Gal, with King singing the Gene Kelly part and Liza channeling mama. Even at that tender age, he was both an endearing throwback and precocious beyond his years; watching a little kid singing a World War 1-era song with Miss Show Business Jr. was, in some ways, like looking at a prescient snapshot of the artist as a young man. Today Nicolas King is still both an appealing bridge back to another—possibly better—era for live performances of this sort and a precocious talent possessing a level of polish and skill far greater than his years.
Indeed, there was much to admire about King’s recent show and the stage persona he has created with its “aw shucks” winsomeness. His voice has matured nicely, reminding me at times of Bobby Darin and Jack Jones, but with a bit of appealing husk in his upper register. Sometimes he also suggests former sidekick (now “mentor”) Liza Minnelli, whose influence is discernible in both King’s vocal phrasing and his relentless eagerness to please his audience. But his sincere traditionalism is at once one his great strengths and, ultimately, one of his biggest challenges. His is a night club act refreshingly devoid of irony and one that—notwithstanding the inclusion of a few songs of more recent vintage and the excision of cigarette smoke—could easily have passed as a night out in Manhattan, circa 1958. When King, whose reverence for mid-century music and culture is both admirable and obvious, mused, “why was I born so late?” I wanted to yell back, “I dunno kiddo, but we better figure out how you’re gonna work around it.”
The show itself was a thoroughly professional, upbeat affair. If I were to sum up the set in a word, it would be “rousing.” Though King’s rigid traditionalism might seem like an affectation or, even worse, a bore, his youth and enthusiasm invest vitality into the whole enterprise. In this he is helped immeasurably by a tight trio, led by the legendary pianist/arranger Mike Renzi (best known for his work with Peggy Lee, Mel Tormé, and Blossom Dearie, to name just a few), Chip Jackson on bass, and Ray Marchica on drums.
Renzi and King complement each other well. Renzi gives King credibility, and his jazz bonafides prevent King from drifting toward a lounge parody. King lends Renzi his great energy, showmanship, and youth. Together they offered a mostly swinging set that used dynamic arrangements and unexpected tempo changes to great effect, an infectiously kinetic momentum. Unlike most cabaret singers who always seem to be marking time till the next ballad, King was completely comfortable layering up-tempo songs back to back and the audience was the beneficiary of all this ring-a-ding-swinging cheer.
Curiously, King was also completely comfortable layering medleys—and I mean really layering them: 8 out of 12 numbers were, in fact, medleys—which I believe is several medleys too many. Now I love a good medley as much as the next guy, but a nearly 75% medley rate borders on gimmicky, even when some are quite good; trust me, “medley rate” is more useful as a term in breezy repartee than as the predominant characteristic of a cabaret act.
“What did he do to achieve a nearly 75% medley rate?” you may ask. Good question: well, there was a wonderful opening medley of “Come Dance with Me”/”Come Fly with Me”; a wistful ballad medley of “If Love Were All”/”If Love is Good to Me”; a high-concept medley “Manhattan”/”The Algonquin Hotel”; a weird waltz medley (“Take a Little Walk”/”The [Girl] Next Door”/”Joy”/”Secret O’ Life”); another wonderful swinging medley, “Goody Goody”/”I Wanna Be Around”; and an extremely unnecessary Yentl medley, “Where is it Written?”/”The Way [She] Makes Me Feel.” There were still more medleys, but you get my point.
My favorite non-medley moments were a first-class version of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’s “Pick Yourself Up” featuring a truly memorable Renzi/Tormé arrangement, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s “They Just Keep Moving the Line,” one of the very best songs from last season’s ill-fated TV show Smashed. Unfortunately, King wove some self-referential patter through the song, which dulled (though didn’t completely dim) its impact. It was nice to hear a song of more recent vintage, but I would encourage King to trust the song to create its own story and not resort to telling his own. Besides, the show already had patter-a-plenty without shoehorning a narrative into his one newish song.
Which brings me back to the challenge that faces even the finest young cabaret performers today: In order to break out beyond the boundaries of the vanity circuit’s hall of mirrors, a performer—even one as promising as Nicolas King—needs something serendipitous to happen. An obvious reference point is Michael Bublé, who, despite being a much more derivative artist (I would say at times bordering on Sinatra tribute band) is selling out arenas, primarily because he has super-producer David Foster and the Universal Music machine driving his ascent. Though one cannot plan for happenstance, only be open to it when it comes along, I am hopeful that some good fortune smiles on Nicolas King; he is a persuasive and powerful brand ambassador for the musical traditions he so completely exemplifies.
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