‘Glee’ star dazzles mixing jazz, show tunes
Matthew Morrison’s evening with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra began with the TV star peeking out of a side door, outfitted in a tux and black fedora, microphone in hand, introducing himself.
“… Here in a role he was born to play,” Morrison boomed in his best announcer voice, before pausing for a beat, then adding, “because he’s playing himself!”
Lest you thought Morrison was born to play Will Schuester, the fashionably optimistic choir director on the Fox hit “Glee,” he clarified that too.
“I’m not really a high school teacher – I just play one on TV,” he told the mostly full audience inside Kleinhans Music Hall. “I spend my days in classy music halls like this one.”
Actually, for the next couple of months, Morrison is spending most of his days on a Los Angeles soundstage, filming the final season of “Glee’s” six-year run. But after that, he’s likely back to his Broadway roots. Which means Morrison – who before “Glee” starred in “Hairspray,” “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza” – will be singing live with much more frequency than the handful of orchestra concerts he’s doing this fall.
And that’s a good thing, because by all indications from his Buffalo show, the 35-year-old is poised to revive a form of musical performance he feels has faded: the song-and-dance man.
In a two-hour show that featured about 70 minutes of Morrison’s music along with a trio of BPO songs led by guest conductor John Morris Russell, he covered 13 songs with the orchestra backing him. Morrison opened with the 1931 Duke Ellington and Irving Mills tune, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” then worked his way through a blend of Broadway and jazz numbers, the best of which was a rendition of Dean Martin’s “Sway.”
Morrison personalized some numbers; for example, to “The Lady is a Tramp,” he added the localized lyrics, “She likes a ball game, thinks the Bills are fine … Jim Kelly is a friend of mine.”
(Interesting side note: Morrison has a Western New York connection. His dad, who accompanied him to Buffalo, is a Niagara University grad.)
He talked about the wistfulness of elusive love while leading into “Street Where You Live” and “As Long as She Needs Me,” the latter a gender-flipped version the “Oliver” number “As Long as He Needs Me.”
Trim and muscular with smooth dancing ability, Morrison knows his sex appeal. He doesn’t flaunt it, but doesn’t ignore it either. He told the audience about his role in “South Pacific” that required him to sing shirtless at Lincoln Center eight times a week. He offered to do the same on stage at Kleinhans, and started loosening his bow tie – one of the few times the politely quiet orchestra crowd started buzzing.
Then he stopped.
“I only take my shirt off in Lincoln Center,” Morrison said, tie dangling from both sides of his collar. “In Lincoln Center, it’s art.
“In Buffalo, it’s a Bills game in December.”
Morrison is ever the showman. But he wasn’t the only one on stage.
Guest conductor Russell sparkled, too. From exuberantly mouthing the words to both the U.S. and Canadian anthems to telling stories on stage before Morrison emerged in both the first and second acts, Russell was entertaining.
In fact, he was almost too entertaining for a show in which he wasn’t the star.
Take what happened during a punchy version of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me,” which was arranged by Morrison’s musical director and pianist Brad Ellis (who’s also the pianist on “Glee”): Morrison tapped Russell, took his baton and started conducting the orchestra. Russell took Morrison’s microphone and started singing.
It was entertaining, for sure, but you also had the sense Morrison and Russell were slightly competing for the spotlight.
That’s a not a bad thing; done right, it could be incredibly funny. But it takes coordination, and that’s always a challenge with guest-artist orchestra concerts.
Which leads me to two final thoughts: The BPO should bring back Russell and let him be the star. He’s an entertainer, and he’ll make orchestral music fun for people who may not otherwise listen to it.
Morrison is already a star, and the end of “Glee” will be music’s gain – because he’s soon to become his generation’s song-and-dance man.