Rob McClure: Smile

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Rob McClure


Feinstein’s/54 Below, NYC, July 1, 2016

Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes

Photo: Maryann Lopinto

Rob McClure apparently gets teased for his optimism. The infectious characteristic was omnipresent in an upbeat debut at Feinstein’s/54Below. McClure is eminently likeable.

The artist was enchanting as the title character in the otherwise disappointing Broadway musical Chaplin,  was buoyed the thin, ill-fated Honeymoon in Vegas, has pleasingly appeared in Scott Seigel’s Broadway by the Year concert series, and is now playing Nick Bottom in Something Rotten!. I happily anticipated this evening.

Unfortunately, the artist seems to have come under the influence of someone—Musical Director/arranger/pianist James Sampliner?—who steered him into a Las Vegas-type show that made LOUD, literally brassy, 11 o’clock numbers of almost everything. McClure’s appealing voice was pushed to gritty stress in order to be heard above overly complex treatments and volume, his acting chops often buried.

The first three jaunty numbers, which look well suited to McClure on paper, lacked any finesse. Where was ease, perhaps a few dance steps? These were followed by the usually lilting “Love, I Hear” which sacrificed ingenuousness to horn-centric, sophisticated swing. A completely misthought duet of “Johanna” and “Pretty Women” with guest Matthew Scott emerged a yelling match. “It Takes Two,” with guest Jenn Collella, was delivered as self-avowed “funk,” eviscerating innate wryness. [The last four songs mentioned are all by Stephen Sondheim.]

McClure often began in what I previously thought of as his natural tone. “You Don’t Know Me” raised hopes, only to a musical segue obliterating lyric intent.

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(This is no reflection on the excellent musicians: Sampliner-piano; Alex Eckhardt-bass; Dan Berkery-drums; Ben Kono-reed; Clinton Sharman-trombone; Jami Dauber-trumpet.) Even an encore of Chaplin/John Turner/Geoffrey Parsons’s beloved, otherwise delicate “Smile,” alas, arrived overblown.

The few thoughtfully executed numbers made one long for a show with this sustained approach: “Kiss Your Worries Away,” written by McClure’s wife, Maggie Lakis, to cheer him up, was sweetly performed on ukulele. Jennifer Barnhart and Rick Lyon, fellow actors from a stint in Avenue Q, contributed a winsome version of “Bein’ Green,” replete with an animated puppet. Watching (and listening to) the talented Lyon and his alter ego was sheer joy.

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Later, these two ably joined in “For Now,” an ebullient number from that show. McClure and his own puppet offered the “Leading Ladies Medley,” a mash-up cheerfully elevated to great fun by a character voice and gestures.

Numbers were connected by sincere and amusing stories illuminating personal show business history. Cited appreciation of cleverly crafted lyrics can only have been illuminating for those unfamiliar with the songs. Recollections of meetings with the performer’s hero, Stephen Sondheim, were highly entertaining.

Rehearsing Broadway’s Chaplin, its star was having difficulty not simply imitating the icon and requested the Tramp’s costume early, hoping it might help. McClure discovered that in order to walk in shoes so much larger than one’s feet, it’s essential to turn out, that to keep oversized pants from falling down, they must be bunched up, and to close a jacket clearly too small, it’s necessary to bend back, adjusting one’s posture so that the button doesn’t pop. These were not, of course, the character’s own clothes, he realized, but scavenged.

This kind of insight and empathy seems to embody the spirit of Rob McClure, a talented artist who — this time at least — was led too much astray.

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.