Brian d’Arcy James listens to the anthem “Who I’d Be” from the Broadway version of “Shrek” and hears Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.” He convincingly mashed them together to wrap up his 90-minute concert Friday in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, putting a bright vocal edge (and a very big grin) on both impassioned tunes.
James, a respected Broadway performer (Shrek in “Shrek”) who drew a big laugh from the knowing audience about being criminally underused in NBC’s late and unlamented theater soap opera “Smash,” made no bones about channeling his inner teen in this Barbara Cook’s Spotlight series appearance. Accompanied by music director Dan Lipton on piano, James trotted out three Billy Joel tunes, a Sting and a Squeeze. During a Saginaw medley featuring songs by composers who grew up in his Michigan hometown, James finished with Stevie Wonder’s exuberant “Isn’t She Lovely,” singing it exactly like a gleeful talented kid pumping up the LP in his bedroom.
Except for a slight honky-tonk twist on Joel’s “Everybody Loves You Now,” James and Lipton didn’t take daring interpretive risks with much of this material. That was fine for such burnished gems as “When October Goes,” the Barry Manilow tune with the Johnny Mercer lyric, and the rapturous “How Glory Goes” from the Adam Guettel musical “Floyd Collins.”
Sting’s rhythmically fascinating “Seven Days” lost its complicated layers, though; its syncopated tricks are too plentiful for two performers to convey. Squeeze’s “Tempted” and even “I Can Do That” from “A Chorus Line” skirted blandness, too, James’s coiled energy and sturdy, sure vocals notwithstanding.
It sounded as if something was missing. Likely, it was more instruments. Lately, James has been playing return engagements in Manhattan with a lot of this material in a cabaret billed as “Under the Influence,” featuring a full septet. With any luck he’ll swing through the Kennedy Center again, and he’ll get to bring the band.