"For those of you who only know me as an actor," Kevin Spacey said, a few songs into his set, "you might be asking yourself, 'What the hell is going on?'"
Essentially, what the hell was going on was a fantasy realized for the 55-year-old award-winning actor: the opportunity to sing from the Great American Songbook, backed by a big band and strings, in a world-class concert hall. For many in the crowd, too, it was a fantasy come true to be so close to Spacey, especially at times when the House of Cards star sauntered down the aisles to sing to and high-five his adoring fans.
Was it any more than fantasy, though? Well, yes and no.
Spacey can sing -- there's no doubt about that. In a nearly two-hour set spanning songs made popular by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and others, only one flat note stuck out. Moreover, like a true thespian, Spacey sells these songs impeccably: either cradling the microphone stand with outstretched arms on ballads, or falling to his knees and punching the air on uptempo numbers. At the end of Dean Martin's hit "You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You," he arched impossibly backward, held the microphone high for a long, sustained final note, lashed at the orchestra for a final downbeat and dropped the mic dramatically.
But while Spacey's fame allows him the luxury of hiring a full orchestra -- a dream for plenty of more-talented vocalists, to be sure -- the emotional resonance that these standards provide a space for simply wasn't there. Spacey loves this material and his enthusiasm for it is contagious. But he's still an actor portraying a singer, and he seems to know it: "The fact that some of you paid hundreds of dollars for a less-professional version of what you can get for less than three dollars on iTunes warms my heart," he confessed.
One of Spacey's hallmarks as an actor is a sinister core beneath his warm, boyish veneer, but even that nuance was absent from his performance. (Those looking for undertones might be directed to Spacey's numerous lapses into over-the-top "snippy diva" lisp in his between-song patter.) No, this was Spacey off-camera, having a barrel of fun, with celebrity impersonations (Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, Al Pacino, Bill Clinton), stories about pranking Billy Joel, quips about people having sex on the lawn, and a well-timed reference to Donald Trump as the devil.
And yet the show remained more about the music than the man. With a big-band backing led by Sinatra's longtime drummer Gregg Field, the songs shone with their original treatments: "Fly Me to the Moon" followed precisely the Quincy Jones arrangement from the Sinatra/Basie album It Might as Well Be Swing, and "I've Got the World on a String" was a to-the-letter rendition of Nelson Riddle's famous arrangement.
In the looser, more spontaneous-feeling second set, Spacey brought out jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who sang a solo turn on "How High the Moon" that showed up Spacey's skills in nearly every way. Austin also introduced a trio of teenage backup singers from Oakland, who gave rise to the concert's grand finale: a gospel-infused rendition of Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
And though these are not entirely new waters for Spacey -- in 2004, he sold out Bimbo's in San Francisco on a short promotional tour for his Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea -- it did feel like the start of a new era in his career, especially as he steps down as artistic director from the Old Vic theater company in London this year.
"It's my intention over the next 10 years to do more stuff like this," Spacey declared, to adoring applause. "I don't do this for a living... but I'd like to."
Can I Steal a Little Love
You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You
All the Way
Fly Me to the Moon
Hello, Young Lovers
I've Got the World on a String
How High the Moon (Patti Austin)
Don't Worry 'Bout Me
My Funny Valentine
New York State of Mind
Without a Song
The Curtain Falls
Bridge Over Troubled Water (with Patti Austin)