Some artists who put together a cabaret show just pick a bunch of songs that they like to sing or that show off their talents. Others pick a theme or turn their cabaret show into an autobiography. Either way, with enough talent and a sense of taste, these shows can be thrilling – as those of us who have collected at least a good portion of the nearly a dozen recordings of Broadway stars’ shows in the Live at 54 Below series of Broadway Records know so well.

The latest release, however, is something a bit different. It isn’t often that a cabaret performance is also a history lesson – and when that does happen it usually isn’t either a very good lesson or a very good show. Jarrod Spector, on the other hand, has pulled off that rarity: a fascinating lesson that is a rousing musical experience.

Spector, despite having been a Star Search attraction at age 6, is best known to the theater community as one of the line of high-tenor actors that the producers of Jersey Boys keeps coming up with who can handle the demands of that oh-so-demanding show in the role of the most identifiably high-tenor star of the second half of the last century, Frankie Valli.

His stint as Valli started out with the alternate slot, performing matinees in the US tour of the show. He moved up to be the headliner with the opening of the Chicago company and later was a replacement Frankie Valli on Broadway. He says he’s performed the role now about 1,500 times! His career is moving on, however, with his role in a new musical where he again performs in the character of a real live person. This time he plays songwriter Barry Mann in the new show Beautiful: The Carole King Musical that opened in January at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre on Broadway.

If you learned what you know about high-tenors from attending a thrilling evening of theater called Jersey Boys you may think that the sound of a Frankie Valli came from out of nowhere to enrapture songwriter Bob Gaudio and capture the public with hit after hit with the Four Seasons from “Sherry” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and the definitive high-tenor pop song, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”

Spector uses his time on the stage of the Broadway nightclub 54 Below (so named because it is in the basement of the building that houses the Broadway theater Studio 54 on – naturally – 54th street) to trace the evolution of the sound from its roots in the opera world of Enrico Caruso to Brian Wilson’s use of the “wail” above the bass grounding of “Good Vibrations” and beyond. He gives due credit to those who informed his own musical world like Billy Joel.

Spector really begins to detail the history when he works in Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Sweet Home Chicago” but he doesn’t just tell us that Johnson was a force in the development of the blues as a jazz/pop genre, he demonstrates it with his own high-energy stage presence before segueing into something more people probably recognize “When You Wish Upon a Star” – the song Leigh Harline and Ned Washington wrote for Disney’s Pinocchio which Cliff Edwards warbled in a distinctive high-tenor.

Moving forward, Spector introduces his audience to the influence of “A Guy Named Little Jimmy Scott,” as the 1940′s segment of his show is titled. Spector’s rendition of “Unchained Melody” is as theatrically entertaining as it is historically informative. Moving into the 50′s he’s throwing his distinctive high-tenor wail into “Good Golly Miss Molly” and other rock and roll classics.

When he throws a Four Seasons/Jersey Boys-ish “woooooweeee!” into his opening number, the song from which his cabaret show takes its title, the Beatle’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” the audience reaction says they are there primarily because of his Frankie Valli work. But with his samples from the work of Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Little Richard, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Enrico Caruso – yes, Caruso! – each delivered with panache, energy and obvious affection, Spector makes his history lesson a highly entertaining musical show that had to satisfy even those who wanted a full evening of just Frankie Valli.

For a guy who has been doing his “Frankie Valli” for years, his honest admiration and love for the work of those other high-tenors who helped create and popularize this particular element of the popular music field comes through on the recording. It also comes through in his notes in the album’s booklet when he says: “To be even a bit like one of them is to be a bit like all of them.”

There is much more here than just a whole lot of songs featuring high-tenor. This is more than a history lesson about how that sound came to be – it is an homage to that distinctively thrilling sound.

With A Little Help From My Friends:
Jarrod Spector Live at 54 Below

Broadway Records
Running time 1:17 on 24 tracks

April 1, 2014

With A Little Help From My Friends:
Jarrod Spector Live at 54 Below