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    Bobby Conte: Rising Star

    By David Landis–

    They say life is a cabaret. But it was anything but a typical cabaret night December 4 when Broadway star Bobby Conte took the stage—literally by storm—at the Live at the Orinda series in the East Bay.

    It was the first Bay Area appearance in a long time for this “local boy made good.” In the meantime, he has made a big name for himself on the Great White Way. He just completed a starring role with Patti LuPone in Stephen Sondheim’s Company on Broadway. That followed on the heels of the lead role in Broadway’s musical version of A Bronx Tale, directed by veterans Robert De Niro and Jerry Zaks. And just before arriving in the Bay Area, he had a one-man show at New York’s esteemed jazz and cabaret venue, Birdland.

    I’ve been lucky enough to have followed this talented young man (he only just turned 30) and his career since he won the local Bay Area Cabaret Teen Idol contest over a decade ago. That’s when, in his late teens, he made his debut at the venerable Venetian Room in San Francisco. Here’s what I have to say: keep your eye on this entertainer—he is a rising star of colossal proportions. As my friend Kip quipped, “Think Mandy Patinkin in Dress Casual or early Bette Midler. He’s someone to watch.”

    It’s not just that he can sing. And dance. And act. His storytelling is so gripping that you never quite know if it’s real or, as they say, if it’s Memorex.

    In Bobby’s performance, fearlessness and raw intensity combine with a voice that can be as mellifluous as Frank Sinatra. Just when you think you’re lulled into a sense of lyrical beauty, he belts it out like Barbra Streisand. And then, he delivers the challenging lyrics of Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” with articulated ease.

    On the surface, the show replicates many of the songs on this performer’s new CD, Along the Way. But this was no concert lip synch. This was a show of surprises, where a performer of great power and musical genius grabbed the bull by the horns, taking the audience along for a singular theatrical ride.

    Some standouts: his rendition of Pasek & Paul’s “Along the Way” (the title track from his CD), which starts out humorously and then leads the audience into the quandary of responsibility, fatherhood, and how to cope. Despite the challenges, “Things will be ok,” says the song’s teaching mantra. That segues brilliantly into “Time Heals Everything,” with Conte’s interpretation rivalling that of Bernadette Peters. He brings down the house with a heartfelt, poignant, and brassy “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Then, the mood shifts noticeably into a quietly soft version of “Here, There, and Everywhere” and Sondheim’s “What Can You Lose?” An upbeat “She Loves Me” is a knockout, but the medley of “That’s Life” and “Vienna” is unspeakably profound.

    Conte’s band included locals Daniel Fabricant on bass and David Rokeach on drums, delivering the best of the Bay Area’s musical talent. Music Director James Sampliner, who also performs with such big names as Billy Porter, Patina Miller, and Norm Lewis, was the phenomenal pianist, making the 3-piece band sound like a dozen.

    Perhaps the best part of this evening? Conte’s storytelling, which gives the evening a theatrical arc too often not present in cabaret. The story brings Conte’s own personal life to light (“I’m the kid with his heart on his sleeve,” quips Conte). But, endearingly, it’s also a love letter to his mother, Lisa Conte. She, too, is from San Francisco and was in the audience that night. As a single mom, she clearly raised this young man to bring great music into the world.

    The good news? Bobby will be coming back to the Bay Area in February at The Strand, a co-production of Feinstein’s at the Nikko and the American Conservatory Theatre. Get your tickets now.

    As for the rest of the season at the Orinda Theatre, producers Derek Zemrak and Michael Williams have captured some great talent: Wickeds Sam Gravitte on January 29, America’s Got Talent star Jimmie Herrod on February 19, The Light in the Piazza’s David Burnham on March 5, Broadway queen Karen Mason on March 26, cabaret veteran Christine Andreas on April 23, and rising local talent Ava Nicole Frances on May 21.

    David Landis studied piano at Northwestern University, worked at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre and Ravinia Festival, and also at the San Francisco Symphony. He even once played Lysander in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” A lifelong theatre and cabaret enthusiast, he spends his spare time playing Sondheim songs for himself at home. In his other life, he writes The Gay Gourmet column for the “San Francisco Bay Times.”

    Arts & Entertainment
    Published on December 15, 2022