Swarthy but cool, like a preppie rodeo cowboy with a tuxedo and a Rolex, Tom Wopat is so charismatic and versatile he can lock in a lyric and lasso an audience at the same time. In addition to starring on Broadway and television, releasing two CDs, and branching out to perform pop songs and Broadway show tunes in massive concert halls and intimate cabarets, he now can swing, too. In fact, his newest CD is called Consider It Swung, and his marvelous new show at the Oak Room of the august Algonquin is aptly titled “Love Swings.” He proves it all, engagingly. With an appealing song list that ranges from Cy Coleman and the Beatles to Gershwin and Bobbie Gentry, he demonstrates with ease why he has become, with age and experience and a lot of good listening, what I call a category-defying performer capable of wearing many hats and tackling numerous trends, from country to jazz. He’s come a long way from The Dukes of Hazzard.
He wafts in with his hands in his pockets—quietly, forcefully singing Harold Arlen’s “Last Night When We Were Young” with a tenderness rare for an opening number. The audience is instantly mesmerized, and for the rest of his act, attention never wanders. He’s not really a jazz singer, but he knows enough about time and tempo to swing “You Fascinate Me So” and “But Not for Me” with more finger-snapping rhythm than is customary. An excellent trio of David Finck on bass, Bob Malach on tenor sax and New York’s newest wunderkind Tedd Firth on piano gives him a comfortable musical hammock to do his swinging in, and he makes the most of it. Having been married three times, he really does know something about “Makin’ Whoopee,” turning the rarely sung verse into practically a personal confession (“Weddings make a lot of people sad/ But if you’re not the groom, they’re not so bad”). His next Broadway musical will be Catch Me if You Can, based on the Steven Spielberg film, in which he will play the father of master scam artist Frank Abagnale Jr., and if the sneak preview of one of his big songs, called “Fifty Checks,” is an indication, it could be a hit. As things heat up, he sheds his jacket and tie, rolls up his sleeves, sips water from the table of a lady who will probably never wash the glass again and turns Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In” into a jazz waltz for sophisticated hillbillies. From his roots, as one of seven children growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm, to the bright neon of Times Square, he’s evolved into a gifted performer and a natural communicator—a lounge lizard on “That’s Life”; a guitar-plucking country boy on his own “Thailand Sea”; and as contemporary as a Birdland hipster swinging Dave Frishberg’s “You Would Rather Have the Blues” (“Any guy who could choose/ Would choose to be in your shoes/ Still you lose, you lose/ ’Cause you would rather have the blues”). Pure dynamite.
Tom Wopat arrived in New York in 1976 after driving from Wisconsin in an old Chevy, 25 years old and green as an artichoke, with $500 in his pocket. He covered the waterfront. Now, at 57, he sings Billie Holiday, Leonard Bernstein and “A New Town Is a Blue Town.” What an act. He can always be counted on to take the familiar and make it unfamiliar. Are you ready for a red-blooded American male with chin stubble and a mustache singing “Over the Rainbow” to the beat of a soft beguine? But, with the way he combines taut, snappily paced, after-midnight cabaret cool with warm, sensitive, down-home friendliness, he’s laid back enough to make you feel like one of his pals. Go. Feel the privilege. He closes March 21. Meanwhile, this is one of the best, most relaxed and romantic acts in town.