There aren't too many types of music that Tom Wopat won't dip into. Before last week's engagement at Booth Playhouse, the one-time Dukes of Hazzard heartthrob had last appeared in town as Billy Flynn in the touring version of Chicago. When not on the road with Broadway musicals, Wopat has moonlighted in Nashville, releasing country albums, and in LA, leading a country-rock band.
Backed by a solid jazz quartet for his six-day Love Swings engagement, Wopat wasn't going to confine himself to the jazz idiom. Yes, there were the standards that jazz singers have riffed on since the days of Billie Holiday. But there were also dips into country ("Deacon's Blues"), Jimmy Webb ("The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress"), pop ("Ode to Billy Joe"), Broadway (a medley of "A New Town Is a Blue Town" from Pajama Game and the "Jet Song" from West Side Story), and Joni Mitchell ("Two Grey Rooms").
Of these, "Jet Song" and -- surprisingly -- Bobbie Gentry's megahit lent themselves best to Wopat's whiskey-flavored style of jazz singing. For the Mitchell tune, Wopat abandoned his jazz pretenses altogether and brought out an acoustic guitar to strum on. He remained strapped in for a charming rendition of his own tune, "Thailand Sea," written while filming The Hive, a made-for-TV sci-fi stinker.
In his stage manner -- and in his jazz repertoire -- Wopat tilted toward Frank Sinatra, but results could vary. "I Get Along Without You Very Well" leaned handsomely into the lyric, yet "That's Life" was inexplicably blasé. I say inexplicably because, while Wopat's voice isn't particularly rangy, it's powerful enough for some heavy Broadway belting. Why even sing "That's Life" if you don't intend to fire those guns?
Wopat probably came to know "Twisted," the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross jazz standard, by way of Mitchell's Court and Spark album, but his interpretation, slowed-down and wry, certainly wasn't a servile imitation. Nor was his "Over the Rainbow," slickly spread over a samba beat, like any version of the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg classic that I'd heard before. "But Not for Me" even sported some vocalese to kick things off hiply, and immediately afterwards, "You Fascinate Me So" was the most heartfelt ballad of the evening.
Standouts in the quartet were Bruce Barth at the piano and Bob Malach on tenor sax. More of their toothsome solos -- and fewer growls punctuating Wopat's vocals -- would have helped to seal the deal for me. But without alcohol or nicotine as onstage props, or those rows of cocktail tables we've seen in past years at the Booth, Wopat's easy-going charm brought a nightclub feel to the place. It's an ambiance we could use more of in Charlotte. Wopat chooses his eclectic materials judiciously, handles the mic with world-weary nonchalance, and deploys his voice with an actor's savvy. Most importantly, he knows how to connect.
Look him up the next time he comes to town.