Agile genre-hopper Elvis Costello emerged from pub rock, punk and new wave in the late 1970s to dip successfully during his long career into everything from reggae to country, folk to soul and, more recently, opera. But he so far has steered clear of the Broadway musical. Monday’s Friends in Deed benefit probably didn’t serve as an enticement. Titled “Brilliant Mistake,” after the opening track from Costello’s 1986 album “King of America,” the evening of Broadway stars covering Costello songs was about 25% brilliant and 75% mistake. And most of the brilliance was concentrated in the final set, when the king himself took the stage to show how it’s done.
For such a prolific songwriter, whose lyrics rank among the most bitingly eloquent of any contemporary music artist, the Costello canon is remarkably unsullied by random cover versions, the main exception being a handful of lackluster Linda Ronstadt excursions. Hearing many of his songs either mangled or rendered as dispiritingly bland karaoke in this New York show benefiting the HIV/AIDS and life-threatening illness crisis org only underlined the indelible quality of their original interpretations.
The sharp-edged cynicism, raw wounds and barely suppressed anger of Costello’s songs connect as they do with his admirers because they seem to come from an authentic well of feeling and not from cultivated rock-poseur romanticism. Whether it’s the jagged anti-corporate skepticism of “Radio Radio” or the bruising tenderness of “Alison,” the songs require a deep probe into their meaning, otherwise vocal prowess becomes almost redundant.
Raucous, rocking renditions of “Radio Radio,” by “Lennon” star Marcy Harriell, or “Peace Love and Understanding” by Eden Espinosa, Gavin Creel and Harriell showed how unnuanced effusiveness can drain the passion from even the most enduring anthems. Worse was Espinosa, plying the “American Idol” screech that became her trademark in the regrettable “Brooklyn” as she grandstanded through “Accidents Will Happen,” overpowering the solid work of her partner on the song, Matthew Morrison.
The beauty of Costello’s songs is that they don’t need dramatic hard sell, but restraint is not always a Broadway musical virtue. While there’s no denying the powerhouse force of his vocal talent, Raul Esparza’s overwrought take on “God Give Me Strength” was a showy betrayal of the spirit of that heart-stricken Costello-Burt Bacharach ballad. Similarly wrong was the insipid coquettishness of Daphne Rubin-Vega’s vulgarized “Everyday I Write the Book.”
Misfires like those made Patrick Wilson’s respectful treatment of the sorrowful, country-flavored “Indoor Fireworks” all the more appealing. Likewise Kevin Cahoon’s rowdy, glamrock-inflected “Lipstick Vogue,” though the gogo dancers seemed both gratuitous and underused.
The most genuine surprise of the lineup was a wrenching version of “The Judgment” led by Norbert Leo Butz, with subtle harmonies from Will Chase. Worlds away from Butz’s wise-ass Jerry Lewis style in “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” the perf indicated one of the few instances of a singer truly getting to grips with the wracked emotions and unflinching harshness of a Costello song, in this case a man standing trial for loving the wrong woman. Butz later delivered a punchy “Veronica” with Creel.
Nellie McKay (whose link to Broadway is forthcoming in Roundabout’s “Threepenny Opera” revival in the spring) recalled the messy outspokenness of vintage Costello appearances in her rambling political comments — lamenting how the exit of Harriet Miers has made way for a far more dangerous force and then lurching into an anti-fur spiel. And the young singer channeled a jaded Peggy Lee indifference that worked well in her airy, eccentric take at the piano on “Party Girl.”
Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) also injected a shot of personality, strutting in semi-drag like a Kit Kat Club floozy through “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” and frequently jettisoning the lyrics in favor of crazed Kiki-esque growling. While Bond’s particular brand of drugged-out anarchy seemed jarringly out of context, it was preferable to banal walk-throughs like Anthony Rapp’s “Alison,” Adam Pascal’s “Beyond Belief” or Molly Ringwald’s lifelessly flat “I Want to Vanish.”
Unsurprisingly, it took Costello’s entrance to supply the evening’s most sustained jolt of electricity. The acute sense of betrayal and tightly capped rage that fuel his best work was all there in the lacerating “The River in Reverse,” a rootsy new song about a world riven by war and injustice.
Costello followed with “Almost Blue” and “She Handed Me a Mirror,” the latter from “The Secret Arias,” a work-in-progress about Hans Christian Andersen commissioned by the Danish National Opera. Narrating Swedish soprano Jenny Lind’s rejection of Andersen, the song’s cruel account of unrequited love is pure Costello. He followed with a playful, sing-along version of “God’s Comic” and closed with the haunting “anti-fear” hymn, “The Scarlet Tide” from “Cold Mountain,” drawing mid-song applause with the pointed relevance of new lyrics: “Admit you lied/And bring the boys back home.”
Far more consistent than the performers, the show’s five-piece band smoothly embraced Costello’s eclectic musical range, adhering largely to original arrangements. But there was very little to match the thrilling spareness of the final bracket, with the singer-songwriter going it solo on guitar or piano.