The message was clear and warm and hopeful: Don’t despair.
Joshua Henry never actually said those words in his Feb. 23 performance at the Cabaret. What he said between songs mostly had to do with the joy he has experienced since the birth of his son.
But by starting his set with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” ending with a take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and offering an encore of Godspell’s “Beautiful City” (“We can build/a beautiful city/yes, we can…”), Henry didn’t need overt preaching to make clear the evening’s theme.
Sporting, a T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers and accompanying himself on guitar, Henry largely bypassed songs from his own Broadway shows (his busy decade has included Carousel, The Scottsboro Boys, Porgy and Bess, and more), offering instead unexpected alternatives including “What Would I Do If I Could Feel” from The Wiz and "Memory" from Cats.
The crowd responded strongest to Henry’s take on “Feeling Good,” the oft-covered number that I’d guess many people don’t realize is actually a show tune. (It was birthed in the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse show The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd.)
From the movie world, Henry elevated “This is Me” from The Greatest Showman, dipped into top 40 pop with “Just the Way You Are,” and soulfully took on Al Green’s “Love and Happiness,” underlining the positivity of the evening every step of the way.
Even when there was a sameness to the guitar playing—I found myself yearning for something like an a cappella “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to mix things up—Henry’s vocals and positive energy never let up.
Something from Hamilton was obligatory since Henry played Aaron Burr in the Chicago company (brilliantly) and in other markets. Rather than take a particular song, he offered what he called HamJams, a medley from the score that showed off his vocal prowess. While fun, skipping musical stones across such a strong score kept any one piece from reaching full power.
Nonetheless, Henry anchored each piece with the same sincerity and a sense of discovery that I experienced when seeing him onstage in Hamilton and Violet.
Some people have it. He’s one of them.