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New York Theater

Jonathan Whitton

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Though looking in his ill-fitting suit and thin tie like a bar mitzvah boy apprehensive about his today-I-am-a-fountain-pen speech, Jonathan Whitton exudes talent and taste. He understands that songs exist to be acted and, furthermore, that show tunes written for dramatic situations frequently offer the richest acting opportunities. Such understanding may spring from his training. Not every cabaret performer can claim to have studied voice with Simon McBurney's Complicite troupe as well as with top-flight British actors Henry Goodman, Diana Quick, and Ruthie Henshall and Ireland's Fiona Shaw.

I'm impressed, but on a first viewing I'm also wondering why — with all Whitton brings to the boite podium — I don't like him more. Seems several things stand between him, me, and outright adulation. Foremost is the voice, despite the standout education it received. Whitton often chooses to pinch his tones, as if notes are pennies he doesn't want to part with. Perhaps he wants only to let go of his sold baritone at calculated moments, but there are more ways to control the voice before allowing it to soar.

The songs he chooses to act — usually by current masters — are sterling, especially as played by Tamra Stephenson. The songwriters he covers (he's often done roles in the tuners from which the material is lifted) include William Finn, Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, John Bucchino, Jason Robert Brown, John Cameron Mitchell, Brad Ross and Joe Keenan, and Mark Campbell, writing with Chris Miller and Deb Barsha. He throws in Sondheim and Adler and Ross too. But why does he launch himself with two numbers about disillusionment? Why does he overemote them? It's the false emotions — the look-at-me-I'm-awfully-good-at-this element — that at this point in Whitton's starting-out career has me withholding unreserved huzzahs. Incidentally, the high swish factor doesn't bother me but could hurt his chances with broader auds.

Presented by and at the Laurie Beechman Theatre,

407 W. 42nd St., NYC.

Aug. 3-31.

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