Maybe the dreary rain-soaked atmosphere outside created a longing for something cheerily familiar Thursday at the Orlando Cabaret Festival. Singer-pianist Tony DeSare has a repertoire of original music but he mostly stuck to standards on the opening night of his four-concert run.
The warmth in DeSare's personality — and voice — was the perfect antidote to the gloomy weather. And if his demeanor and singing had an easygoing, comfortable vibe, his fierce piano playing raised the energy level more than a couple of notches.
Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" illustrated that dichotomy. DeSare started out with his voice pleasantly wrapping around the jaunty tune, then suddenly his fingers flew across the keyboard, riffing on the main melody.
Part of the thrill is how effortless it all seems to him, whether he's messing around with musical styles in "Autumn Leaves" or musing his way through "New York State of Mind," suggested by an audience member.
A brave man, DeSare is not afraid to tackle legends such as Jerry Lee Lewis (with "Great Balls of Fire," no less) or Bob Dylan ("The Times They Are a-Changin'"). In clever arrangements, he puts his own stamp on the works, while paying homage to the originals.
His diverse repertoire means one minute he's performing the Gershwin brothers' "They Can't Take That Away from Me," written in 1937; later, it's a jazzed-up arrangement of Prince's 1980s hit "Kiss."
DeSare's singing is full of careful phrasing, which delightfully never sounds careful. His playing technique benefits from the same phrasing work. "The Birth of the Blues" starts out with an insistent throbbing from the piano, until the keys burst into those glorious blues chords.
DeSare did play a couple of his original works. His opening song, "The New Orleans Tango," was full of sharply struck piano chords that created the image of two smoldering dancers making their sudden turns. It also allowed him to demonstrate his low-key sense of humor: "The tango is the most romantic dance two people can do… other than the Macarena, of course," he deadpanned with a grin.
The ballad "How I Will Say I Love You" was delivered with a simple intensity that left the mesmerized audience afraid to break the silence with applause as the last note died away.
He also sang "East to the Sea," which he wrote to advertise a New York bus line that brings passengers from the city to Long Island's beaches.
"It's a love song to a bus," DeSare joked. But hearing that mellifluous voice sing about escaping the real world to watch the ocean waves lighten your soul, it becomes more than a commercial. Whether by bus, train or some other vehicle, the enamored audience, myself included, was ready to follow DeSare anywhere.
• What: Headliner at Orlando Cabaret Festival
• When: 8:15 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 3-4; 3:15 p.m. Sunday, May 5
• Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando
• Tickets: $35
• Call: 407-297-8788
• Online: OrlandoCabaret.comCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times