By Jeff Walsh
Shawn Ryan is a talented singer. You may have caught him last summer on America's Got Talent. You can hear him sing standards such as "Moon River" and "Blue Skies" on his website. But live in concert, as Shawn recently performed for a capacity crowd at the Herbst Theatre, he's something else entirely. In fact, he's many things.
Ryan wears his influences on his sleeve, and is quick to note that a shuffle across stage is his Bette Midler walk. A gesture is his Norma Desmond homage. A certain look is Barbra Streisand. Toss in a few more references to Ann Margaret, Judy Garland, and a few others, and after a night of cover songs, my biggest takeaway was: But who's Shawn?
I will be up front that I do not see a lot of cabaret performances. But I understand the parameters are typically that you sing cover tunes, and the key is finding the perfectly wonderful obscure song that you can take and make your own. The thing isn't that I didn't get Shawn's show, but having seen Bette and Liza in concert before (on separate occasions, of course), I felt like I'd seen this act before. Ryan was able to land Bruce Vilanch to help him out with the banter between songs, and Vilanch has famously written Midler's stuff for decades. And when Ryan's male dancers came out, shirtless, for a little dance number, I was immediately flashing back to seeing Liza do Minnelli on Minnelli at the Palace Theatre in Times Square, where the guys danced around her and she would eventually do a "Oh, is this how this step goes, boys?" and dance with them for a few bars.
But, there was something discombobulating about seeing that show centered around a young guy, even if he's doing a very gay show. Part of why it works for Liza is that she's a diva and when she steps in for a few bars, the crowd is hoping her hip will hold out. When you combine that with some Vilanchian humor like "Anne Reinking is just a Kirstie Alley away from Being Harvey Fierstein," it didn't quite mesh for me. Vilanch, during his stand-up bit in the middle of the second act, said he decided to write for Ryan because "no one's doing shows like this anymore." My takeaway was ... maybe there's a reason, at least why no one young is doing them.
Beyond that aspect, Ryan was full of energy frOm the moment he came onstage to sing "If My Friends Could See Me Now," although given the strong presence of the cabaret scene in San Francisco, it's likely a lot of his best friends were seeing him that night.
The set list also included (as best as I can cobble together): "Getting to Know You," from the King & I; "A Wink and A Smile" by Harry Connick Jr.; "Everybody Loves A Lover," by Doris Day; a dream medley featuring "Neverland" from Peter Pan, "Dream A Little Dream" by Louis Armstrong, "Dream Lover" by Bobby Darin, "I Have A Dream" by ABBA, and "What You'd Call A Dream" by Jaymie Meyer; "Down With Love;" "Wouldn't It Be Lovely?" from My Fair Lady, with a vampy beat; "Everybody's Boy" by Elvis Costello; "Beat My Dog" by Jay Leonhart; "Anyway The Wind Blows" by Doris Day; "Do You Wanna Dance?" by Bette Midler; "More" by Madonna; and "Checking Out of this Heartbreak Hotel" by Shel Silverstein.
Once you wrapped your head around the spirit of the show, it was clearly a labor of love. Multiple dancers, back-up singers, a grand piano, a small orchestra, banter and audience interaction throughout the whole night... it was very well-packaged.
And while I'm clearly clued in now to the performers that have influenced Ryan, it seems the next step is for him to take all of that influence in and make it his own.