Downstairs Cabaret's new offering, "Dream Lover," really is nothing more than a nightclub act, but it's a very good nightclub act. Singer Robert Shaw (definitely not to be confused with the actor or the choral conductor) simply salutes singer-actor-songwriter Bobby Darin, a huge star in the late 1950's and early 60's, known for songs like "Mack the Knife," "Splish Splash," and "Dream Lover." Darin's music had a brief resurgence during that "lounge" revival that was big for about 15 minutes in the 1990's, but he seems to be semi-forgotten now.
Bobby Darin was a pretty impressive musician - he started out as a Brill Building songwriter and played several instruments - and was revered as a nightclub entertainer by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr. He was also something of a movie star, and part of a golden 1960's Hollywood couple during his marriage to Sandra Dee. In poor health all his life from several childhood bouts of rheumatic fever, Darin was a driven man (he died at 37), and it shows in a lot of his music making.
"Mack the Knife," his biggest hit, typifies his style: swinging, almost relentlessly hip, seemingly loose but always tight and in control, whether he was singing "Splish Splash" or "My Darling Clementine." It's mighty entertaining, if a bit dated; one wonders how Darin would have developed as a musician if he'd lived longer.
Darin's life definitely had tabloid moments, and he had an increasingly dark, strange side as he aged. That's not the point of "Dream Lover." The between-songs patter is a once-over-lightly of Darin's life, but this show really is just about the music, and the music is nifty.
Robert Shaw channels Darin's distinctive style without imitating him, trying to look like him, or aping his mannerisms. (Well, there is a lot of finger-snapping, but try singing this music without snapping your fingers.). Shaw's strong, solid voice is impressive in driving arrangements of sometimes-syrupy ballads like "On the Street Where You Live" and "Call Me Irresponsible," but a highlight of the set is his quiet rendition of "My Funny Valentine," with piano accompaniment. (We're told that while Darin was a star of the rock 'n' roll charts and Vegas lounges, his heart was with the Great American Songbook, and there are pleasing renditions of plenty of standards here.) All of Darin's big hits are here, too, and sound just as snappy as the originals.
Shaw's skilled singing is matched by his back-up group, the Lonely Street Jazz Orchestra: music director Matthew Romy on piano, Emiliano Lasansky on bass, Greg Gascon on drums, Charlie Carr on trumpet, Alistair Duncan on trombone, and Glenn Estey on reeds. Each gets a chance to shine individually in the course of the show, and they're an ideally tight ensemble.
Somebody else will have to write "the real Bobby Darin story," but "Dream Lover" does bring back the songs of a performer who should be better remembered. It's a polished and very entertaining couple of hours of musical time traveling in very good company.
JCC CenterStage opened its 40th season doing what Ralph Meranto does best: producing a new national work, with local actors, for local audiences.