Midway through the first act of Michael Ball’s audacious and largely electrifying cabaret debut comes an extraordinary trio of songs — Jacques Brel’s “A Son,” Al Jolson’s “Little Pal” and the eternally mournful “The Man That Got Away,” the last number reimagined not as a requiem for romantic loss but as one for a youth vanished so fast that an entire life seems imperiled. As its performer tightens his grip over the intimate Donmar Warehouse, relying not on chitchat or a hand mic but on sheer empathy with his material, an audience member can be forgiven for checking the program. Can this really be Michael Ball, you may wonder, remembering the fluffy-haired, rather anodyne belter who starred in London and on Broadway in “Aspects of Love”? It is, and yet different — a darker, more burnished figure, 40 next year, who is facing an important birthday with a no less significant change in career.
By the time Ball opens the second act with a nine-minute medley of some 30 songs, snatches from one number after another creating a restlessly volcanic surge of music, the transformation feels complete, rather as if David Cassidy had turned overnight into Mandy Patinkin.
Those unfamiliar with Ball’s established persona may be somewhat less impressed by what he here accomplishes as the last of this year’s Donmar Divas, following Clive Rowe (New York-bound for Joe’s Pub mid-October) and Sian Phillips — the latter as appealingly smoky-voiced as she was relentlessly chatty. But Ball, in theory anyway, repped just the sort of mainstream arena artist who wouldn’t seem to need the Donmar and vice versa, especially given a repertoire that has tended toward the more cheesily emotive end of the West End spectrum.
Imagine, then, one’s surprise — and pleasure — at Ball’s Donmar format, as cleverly devised and directed by Jonathan Butterell with Jason Carr the invaluable pianist. (Ball sits out one number — literally, his legs outstretched on the floor — leaving Carr to play a Bach prelude.) Duke Ellington might not seem the most logical segue from Radiohead, until, that is, you’ve heard “Nice Dream” bleed seamlessly into Ball’s shimmering take on “Solitude.” Earlier, Ball launches proceedings with a mock-apprehensive “No, Don’t Look at Me,” from “Follies,” the singer then emboldened by music that takes him through “I Whistle a Happy Tune” and “Anyone Can Whistle” to arrive back where he began, this time ready and raring to go.
In the past, Ball has allowed a powerful set of pipes to do much of the affective work for him, so one can only hope his newly acquired truthfulness has resulted to some degree from paying close heed to his friend Barbara Cook. (He appropriates, and very well, one of Cook’s more buoyant numbers, “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy.”) Throughout, a questioning impulse fires up the bravura (I’ve never heard “There’s No Business Like Show Business” begun so quietly) just as more than one number — Leiber & Stoller’s “Is That All There Is,” among them — casts the audience as de facto therapist to an avowedly self-analytical, searching Ball.
The program mixes Sondheim, Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa with a version of John Lennon’s “Mother” that is as heartstopping as a subsequent “Happy Talk” is glistening with delight. At the end of what must be an exhausting vocal marathon, Ball delivers an a cappella “After the Ball,” his firm high baritone rather touchingly — by that point — straining after the final note. A defect? Not at all; more like a well-earned chink in the armor at which one realizes, and not for the first time during a stirring evening, that Michael Ball is human, too.