Tom Strini

Jon Peterson is THE Song Man Dance Man

By - Nov 7th, 2011 12:38 am
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Jon Peterson, with pianist Jack Forbes Wilson. Milwaukee Rep photo by Michael Brosilow.

Imagine the energy required to put on a show comprising songs and dances by George M. Cohan, Fred Astaire, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Gene Kelly, Anthony Newley and Donald O’Connor. Sunday night, Jon Peterson opened just such a show, his own Song Man Dance Man, at the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Aside from a few props and the indispensable Jack Forbes Wilson at the piano, Peterson was on his own.

His energy never flagged during this 100-minute tour de force. He didn’t hide his effort, which was palpable, but he never tried too hard, pleaded for audience approval, or showed desperation. Peterson loves this stuff and projected that love urgently. That charged his electric presence, which commanded the room Sunday.

Peterson is a small, wiry guy with a driving tap style and low center of gravity, worlds apart from Astaire but pretty close to Gene Kelly. He’s a very skilled hoofer and a smart, powerful singer, but still: How could he or anyone out-Astaire Astaire or one-up Gene Kelly? Peterson put a gloss of imitation on most of the numbers, but essentially (and wisely) chose to remain more or less himself throughout. Thus Song Man Dance Man becomes a heartfelt homage rather than a string of pale imitations.

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Jon Peterson dons clown make-up for the last two numbers of “Song Man Dance Man.” Milwaukee Rep photo by Michael Brosilow.

As a singer, he was very much his own man. He added a hint of Anthony Newley mannerism to Newley’s tunes, but gave no such nod to Bobby Darin in Splish Splash and Mack the Knife. Peterson’s Mack was among the fiercest and most furious I’ve ever heard.

His phrasing and articulation gave special force to the meanings of all the songs. He and Wilson built some of the more operatic tunes — Send in the Clowns, Once in a Lifetime, I Gotta Be Me — to convincing heroic climaxes. Peterson also nailed the easy, loping charm of It’s a Lovely Day Today (associated with Donald O’Connor) and Singin’ in the Rain. He showed more good judgment by making his own rain dance rather than reproducing Kelly’s as best he could on a dry stage.

A forgotten song, Cohan’s Life’s a Funny Proposition After All, was my favorite of the evening. You’d think it would be a vintage comedy tune, but no. Cohan here considers the meaning of life and wonders at the miracle of the way things are, in simple language that touches the profound. Peterson’s exactly right parlando approach to it held us all spellbound.

Peterson’s script ingeniously weaves anecdotes, historical notes and hoary jokes into a narrative that ties all seven legends into a tradition. Jon Peterson is a worthy addition to the lineage he has chronicled so vividly.

Song Man Dance Man runs through Jan. 8. For tickets and information visit the Milwaukee Repertory Theater website or call The Rep’s box office, 414 224-9490.

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