Friday, January 23, 2015

American Songbook at NJPAC: Osnes & Fontana do Duets

They are Broadway stars, but they have serious pop culture cred. Laura Osnes won a network reality show competition to land the leading role in the most recent Broadway revival of Grease. Santino Fontana gave voice to the prince in a little animated movie called Frozen. They also shared the stage together in the recent Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, so they are clearly comfortable performing together. Given their crossover appeal, they are quite the logical choice to kick off the second season of American Songbook at NJPAC this coming Wednesday on NJTV.

For Osnes and Fontana’s concert, everything comes in twos. Throughout their set, they pair one classic with one relatively contemporary thematically related Broadway duet. Not surprisingly, the newer material will be less familiar than the old standards, but those turn out to be some of the set’s best surprises. While they attack a pseudo-novelty number like Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do” with admirable gusto, an unheralded tune like the Off-Broadway ringer “First Date/Last Night” really sneaks up on the audience. They also maintain a sense of the piece’s theatricality in way that is appropriate to the cabaret-like nature of the concert.

Naturally, there are a few selections from Cinderella, including a lovely rendition of “Ten Minutes Ago.” It is odd to think of a Sondheim song as popular crossover selection, but with the Into the Woods movie now in theaters, many more viewers will now be familiar with “It Takes Two.” Frankly, it is a very Sondheim song with some really awkward initial lyrics, but they stick with it and land it like champs.

Arguably, there is something old school about Osnes and Fontana. They can patter and rib each other in between tunes, launching into the next number perfectly on cue. You have to wonder how many performers coming up could handle that kind of cabaret-revue format. They also introduce the musicians onscreen (rhythm section, guitar, and two strings), which seems like the obvious, classy thing to do, but might have easily been cut by an overly time sensitive producer.

Both vocalists are charismatic performers with strong, clear voices (particularly Osnes, who starred in Bonnie & Clyde, a somewhat short-lived original Broadway musical that deserved a better fate). Showcasing artists like them is simple concept, but it’s the sort of real deal arts programming more PBS affiliates should be producing. It is good for the talented, but maybe not quite household name artists, good for NJPAC, and good for the American Songbook. Recommended for fans of Broadway and popular standards, American Songbook at NJPAC: Osnes & Fontana premieres this Wednesday (1/28) on NJTV and later airs on WNET Thirteen on March 21st.

(Photos: Daniel Cardenas/NJTV)