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Cheyenne Jackson does justice to Ellington standard, others of ‘Mad Men’ era

Cheyenne Jackson is a born entertainer. Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall, the Broadway singer gave us what turned out to be a mad mix.

During the course of his show, which the BPO had titled “Music of the Mad Men era,” Jackson told stories and sang standards. He shimmied around, sort of like Elvis. He could belt like Tom Jones one minute and the next, his voice would be soft and silky.

Tall and ludicrously handsome, like a Ken doll, he was unscripted and charming.

“This is my first time in Buffalo,” he told us, for starters. “It’s so gorgeous. This space is so beautiful. The acoustics are beautiful. I’ve been around the world, and that’s not always the case.”

Then he went on to tell us how he had grown up in a small town in Idaho, with no running water. “No water, and we had an outhouse,” he said. His mother gets defensive, he added. “My mother is like, ‘We only had no running water for five years.’ ”

By the end of the evening you felt you knew Jackson’s family, from his loving parents, hippies turned born-again Christians, to his feisty grandmother, who dyed her hair red and finally found happiness with her sixth husband. We also got to know the singer himself.

Jackson puts a lot of himself into the show – not just the banter, but the music, too.

His singing is polished to a high sheen. He has a beautiful falsetto and knows how to use it. He is also the master of the chiseled silence. The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Associate Conductor Stefan Sanders, matched his subtleties.

Jackson gave one of the most moving performances I can recall of Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.” My dad used to describe that as a sad wartime song, but most singers unheedingly sing it uptempo. Jackson took it slow, and you felt the emotion. On the uptempo side, “Luck Be a Lady” was suave and tense, just as it should be. “Old Devil Moon” had gritty excitement.

Solos added to the bluesy feel. Jackson had brought along a pianist, Willy Beaman, who was also excellent, simple and effective. Joining the BPO for the occasion were a bunch of fine local jazz musicians, including guitarist Mike Moser and bassist Paul Zapalowski.

Jackson also did a few pop numbers, probably because he wanted to reach out to a wider group of listeners. They didn’t capitalize on his marvelous voice in the same way, but his heart was in it, and it showed. He sang Elton John’s “Your Song,” naturally and with feeling. There was something sweet about how he sang Joni Mitchell’s “I Could Drink a Case of You” sitting on the edge of the stage. “I Who Have Nothing” showed off his Tom Jones skills.

One notable novelty was “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” a Sylvia Plath poem set to music by Buffalo native Ben Toth. The loud, crashing arrangement half drowned him out, but the song had potential.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra kept up with him every step of the way, adapting to whatever he needed. Some numbers required that the BPO musicians just sit and do nothing – but when they played, they rocked the house. The trombones blared, and the shimmering strings did a lot to re-create the ambiance of the 1960s. The golden glow of Kleinhans made the picture complete.


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