Paolo Szot is the rare kind of ruggedly handsome and charismatic opera star who makes both men and women weak in the knees in equal proportion. He brought his irresistible personality and booming baritone voice back to 54 Below for the eighth time on Saturday, where he almost blew out the intimate room along with his microphone.
Brazillian born Mr. Szot was busy enough in the world of opera before being tapped for his first musical by Lincoln Center in 2008, to star as Emile Debecque in their hugely successful revival of South Pacific. He fulfilled his dream to debut at the Met starring in The Nosein 2013. He will return there soon in Madame Butterfly, alternating as Sharpless with none other than Placido Domingo.
His cabaret shows at 54 Below reflect his attempt to build a bridge in both his voice and his style between the demands of the popular and classical repertoires. This show was devoted to the music Frank Sinatra recorded in 1967 in collaboration with Brazilian songwriter, singer, composer and pianist/guitarist Antonio Carlos Jobim, who merged the rhythms of American jazz and Brazilian samba into the bossa nova sound.
Mr. Szot excelled when singing these songs in his native Portuguese. When it came to singing in English, he was at his best with songs he seemed to relate to on a more personal level.
The highlights of the evening for me were his beautifully modulated performances of the standard, “I Concentrate on You,” Jobim’s “Quiet Nights,” “How Insensitive,” and particularly his stunningly intimate and stirring rendition of “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacificas his second encore.
On the other hand, I was less engaged by a strange medley of “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from Kismet, cobbled together with certain songs from South Pacific which are sung in the show by the female lead, rather than the character Mr. Szot played. In the same vein, he gave a light hearted rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema” with lyrics as Ella Fitzgerald sang it it, in praise of “The Boy From Ipanema.” Draw your own conclusions….
He also delivered a rousing version of “Fly Me to the Moon,” with the kind of lush, full voiced sound that represented him at his very best as a singer.
His backup trio consisted of Musical Director and very fine pianist Klaus Mueller, the superlative bassist and guitarist Itaiguara Brandrao, and drummer David Silliman, who probably should have been told to lay back a bit.
Not that Mr. Szot is anything less than a Tony winning star, a great performer, and a genuinely nice guy. But Mr. Szot has a vocal technique (I won’t bore you with details) which brings out the low notes in his voice, but leaves his upper notes sometimes sounding covered, and even pushed. It wasn’t a problem for him in South Pacific, because that score sits squarely in the bottom of the baritone range. I melted along with everyone else in the Vivian Beaumont Theater audience whenever he sang during that show. But, honestly, this issue caught my ear on several occasions during this performance.
So I couldn’t avoid comparing Mr. Szot in my mind to baritone William Michals, who understudied him in South Pacific,and stepped in for Mr. Szot for several weeks during the run. Mr. Michals, whom I recently reviewed in another cabaret show at Feinstein’s/54 Below, sings effortlessly and gloriously throughout his entire range, with a perfect balance of rich low notes and bright, ringing high notes. Among the Broadway bred baritones I know, he is unreservedly my favorite.
However, Mr. Michals does not have Mr. Szot’s hair. That, as they say, is show biz.