The energy in the 1,700-seat St. James Theatre — where “Springsteen on Broadway” has settled in for the summer — could have electrified a Con Ed substation. The crowd included longtime fans of the Boss and luminaries as well: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and husband Chasten, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, and E Street Band alumnus Steve Van Zandt all were in a house in which some seats sold for $500 and more.
They were treated to a reprise of the concert that Springsteen brought to Broadway in 2017 and ran for 229 performances. Saturday night at the St. James wasn’t so much a continuation as an amplification: The set list that includes “My Father’s House,” “Thunder Road,” “The Rising” and “Dancing in the Dark” remains pretty much the same from the earlier version. The songs he’s picked often illustrate the influence that his early years had on his music. Added to the program this time is “American Skin (41 Shots),” a song Springsteen wrote in response to the fatal Bronx police shooting in 1999 of Amadou Diallo, a horror that presaged a host of similar shootings of Black men and women to come.
But if the earlier run of “Springsteen on Broadway” was a more subdued, ruminative affair, performed in the 975-seat Walter Kerr Theatre four blocks away, this new one showcases a funnier, more relaxed Springsteen — a rocker with a showman’s flair for the dramatic and a yearning, it seems, to underscore his eternal quest for authenticity: “I come from a boardwalk town,” he says by way of preamble, “where everything was tinged with fraud.”
The stories that follow, of a youth spent in a blue-collar town on the Jersey Shore, gathering experiences for a musical life, are reminiscent of “Springsteen on Broadway’s” first round. Now, though, he seems more invested in the storytelling, on being in the moment with his memories, intent on revealing to us a singer-songwriter wrestling with an older man’s adversaries: time, loss, regret. He’s a rock-star Prospero, entertaining us on his island, the magic distilled in guitar licks and piano chords.
He doesn’t share the stage with anyone in “Springsteen on Broadway” except for his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, and the crew member who sidles on between songs, toting the various acoustic guitars and harmonicas with which he accompanies himself. His audience is eager to reward him with “Bruuuuuuuuuuces” and self-dramatizing outbursts, which irritate the heck out of him. He curates his fans’ responses as if an applause meter were another of his instruments.
“Please don’t cheer every dumb f---ing g----- thing,” he instructs the house at the top of the show. He’s not the Boss for nothing. I grew up a few Jersey towns over and just a few years later than Springsteen, and I recognize the native instinct, the mistrust of exaggerated worship, reflective of a certain time in a long-overlooked state that existed in the shadows of two bigger ones. After singing “Thunder Road” and before launching into a long story about his first cross-country car trip, Springsteen detours to make fun of the fairly new phenomenon of expressing Jersey pride.
Another annoyance! “I invented that s---!” he shouts.
His curation includes one of the key requirements for admission: a vaccination card. “It’s great,” he remarks. “Unmasked, sitting next to each other.” Bizarrely, theatergoers were greeted outside the St. James by a cadre of screaming, placard-waving anti-vaccination protesters, who feel aggrieved by the fact that the government wants to save their lives. Their rage is a bewildering counterpoint to the joy inside the theater at the freedoms the vaccines have given back to us. The demonstration is as out-of-touch as “Springsteen on Broadway” feels in-touch.
I don’t remember in the first incarnation of the show Springsteen being so deeply moved by the stories of his dad, a hard-drinking factory worker who haunted the bars of Monmouth County, and his lighter-hearted mom, a legal secretary who loved to dance; at 95 she is still alive, though diminished, her son tells us, by Alzheimer’s. He practically is overcome as he recalls two Jersey rockers who died in Vietnam. These profoundly personal reminiscences infuse his songbook with an incandescent power, an effect enhanced by Natasha Katz’s emotionally enriching lighting and Brian Ronan’s polished sound design.
“Fire” is a word that crops up memorably in Springstein’s lyrics, and his conversation. “Can’t start a fire without a spark,” goes a line in one of his most popular songs, and it’s the word he uses to describe the impact Scialfa makes on him as she walks onto the stage. Springsteen, you’re reminded, is the keeper of many flames: of an era of hard-driving rock, of a certain American lack of pretension, of a tireless work ethic. His shift starts at 8 p.m. and goes on without intermission, by the way, until 10:30.
This Medicare-eligible Jersey Shore troubadour, comprising equal parts music and heart, still burns white-hot.
Springsteen on Broadway, written and directed by Bruce Springsteen. Set, Heather Wolensky; lighting, Natasha Katz; sound, Brian Ronan. $75-$850. About 2½ hours. Through Sept. 4 at St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St., New York. seatgeek.com.