Clive Rowe hits the stage for his debut cabaret holding a bag, looking like he’s just got off a bus. Two hours later — dressed by then in a tux, the audience clamoring for more — he has come to exude the panache of a performer whose favored mode of transport is the limo. In between, he allows the audience some transport of its own, as the first male diva in the Donmar Warehouse’s increasingly invaluable late-summer season of cabaret artistes. Rowe, the 36-year-old Briton who merited attention as the black (and excellent) Mr. Snow in Nicholas Hytner’s 1992 revival of “Carousel,” may not have the greatest voice you’ve ever heard, but he possesses funkiness and fun and charm to spare. His run lasted merely its scheduled week, but fear not: Talent like his is not likely to go away.
Unlike Betty Buckley, his predecessor this summer, Rowe grabs an audience by the lapel through sheer likability. Partly, that’s due to the differing approach of the diva seasons’ various American and British performers. In past years, Britons like Imelda Staunton — Rowe’s co-star in Richard Eyre’s most recent National Theater “Guys and Dolls” revival — have made something of a fetish of self-deprecation in the way that American visitors like Buckley or Patti LuPone would never sanction. (If any Yanks were that self-deprecating, one feels them thinking, why would they have been exported to the Donmar in the first place?)
And for a while in the first act, Rowe looks as if he may be steering the same course. Proceedings begin inauspiciously with a wanly sung “Moon River,” and Rowe has barely got going before he loses his stride. “Where am I now? I’m completely lost,” he says, followed by a vaguely irritating (and often repeated) nervous chuckle, until musical director and pianist Wendy Gadian flashes a reassuring grin and puts Rowe right.
It may be in the nature of the British, however, to play the underdog so that their eventual achievement emerges with that much more force. And so it is with Rowe, dressed for the first act in a black T-shirt and matching trousers that don’t disguise the performer’s, uh, fleshy frame. He proves the crooner par excellence on the old Sinatra standard, “Fly Me to the Moon,” while his “I Can Cook, Too” — a favorite of Barbara Cook at this same venue — possesses all the requisite feistiness. Best of all, perhaps, is Rowe’s bump-and-grind brio as a bona fide rock and roller, whether applied as expected to “Great Balls of Fire” or, against the odds, to “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” (The latter belongs to a medley of songs from children’s films.)
Not all of Rowe’s choices pay off. He’s better on the expressive, more raucous numbers than when the mood turns wistful. About the best that can be said for his a cappella rendition of the theme from “The Way We Were” is that its sentimentality is at least of a cheerful nature.
But Rowe is also an actor — last year at the National as one of Trevor Nunn’s Ensemble 99 — which means he can shade a melody beyond simply putting it over. He delivers a remarkable “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” submerging any tendency toward camp in a tough and passionate take on a bruising revelation of character. The choice was apparently suggested by Donmar a.d. Sam Mendes (“When the host asks you to sing,” deadpans Rowe, “you sing”). Rowe auditioned over a decade ago for Nunn’s Glyndebourne staging of “Porgy and Bess”: He didn’t get the role but can field the score, as his “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon … ” makes ringingly clear.
The connective patter, in the performer’s own words, amounts to “the A-to-Z of me,” from his origins as Clive Mark Rowe in a Baptist church choir near his north of England home through London drama school days (Simon Russell Beale and Ewan McGregor were Guildhall classmates) and the audition circuit: The last accounts for the inclusion of “Heaven on Their Minds,” from “Jesus Christ Superstar” — hardly Rowe’s most sophisticated entry. His London musicals get an appropriate look-in (“Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls” is the inevitable, and welcome, encore) and so, by the final bows, does an unstoppable verve.
That may be Rowe’s banner achievement, by comparison with the more illustrious divas who have come before: You enter not quite sure what you’re going to get and leave grinning from ear to ear.