Darren Criss busts out Broadway chops at Nourse Theater

darrencriss_MarkCortaleProductions_courtesy
Mark Cortale Productions/Courtesy

When Seth Rudetsky, the pianist and host for the night, announced that Darren Criss’ first song would be one that he performed as Blaine Anderson on the hit television show “Glee,” the audience let out a collective cheer. Though the crowd was expecting to hear one of Blaine’s signature tunes such as “Teenage Dream” or “Against All Odds,” Criss instead opened the show with “Broadway Baby,” an oft overlooked duet with Lea Michele from the show’s fifth season.

The song, however, was indeed a fitting way to kick off Criss’ Friday night performance, which was part of producer Mark Cortale’s Broadway @ The Nourse series in San Francisco. Instead of running the gamut of songs from the iconic “Glee” catalog, Criss journeyed down memory lane, regaling the audience with stories of his theater background and performing some of his favorite Broadway songs along the way.

Criss was accompanied by Seth Rudetsky, a Sirius/XM radio host, whose encyclopedic knowledge of musical theater was the perfect complement to Criss’ artistic enthusiasm. The song choice seemed to follow the timeline of Criss’ life story. Between songs, Rudetsky would sit down with Criss and discuss some of the formative aspects of his life — growing up in San Francisco, being Filipino, and booking “Glee” — then transition into a song that was related to each memory. It was as if Criss were creating an autobiographical jukebox musical right before the audience’s eyes.

Criss’ distinct, silly personality shone through in each song, such as when he forgot a chunk of lyrics during “Broadway Baby.” “Just look cute!” Rudetsky yelled during the misstep, prompting Criss to strike an adorable pose mid-song. “It’s working!” Criss laughed, and the crowd laughed along with him.

But as a trained performer — he mentioned that he studied “straight theater” in college — Criss is incomparably mutable, able to quickly embody each of the characters he portrayed through song that night.

In one moment, Criss was a frantic and frustrated Harold Hill, stumbling through the panic-riddled “Ya Got Trouble” from “The Music Man.” Minutes later, he was a member of the barbershop quartet of the same musical, calling upon two of his high school buddies to perform a swelling acapella rendition of “Sincere.”

He was loose and emphatic as Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” effortlessly slipping back into the role he played during his senior year of high school at St. Ignatius College Preparatory. His faux Yiddish accent was just the right amount of cheesy. His shoulder-shaking shimmies and shockingly accurate chicken squawks sent the crowd into a frenzy.

The night, however, was not so much a homecoming celebration of Criss’ talent, but rather a showcase of his extreme gratitude and unwavering humility. He spent much of his time calling out all the San Francisco-based theater companies that he was a part of, and he expressed his nervousness that his parents and teachers were in the audience.

Criss’ tender vocal tones found rest in “Wicked Little Town,” from his latest Broadway foiree, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” Following that performance, expressed his shock and gratitude in being able to book roles on Broadway to begin with.

“I had no idea voices like mine had a place on Broadway,” he said sincerely. Criss noted that he always felt his voice was more suited for pop or rock music, despite growing up in the world of musical theater.

The duo ended the show with a rendition of “Where or When,” a track from the musical “Babes in Arms,” and Criss’ audition song for “Glee.” Afterwards, Rudetsky returned to the stage for the anticipated encore. He threw the sheet music binder off the piano stand then motioned to Criss, who reappeared to take his rightful seat behind the keys.

The audience let out a collective sigh of awe as Criss crooned the opening line of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” and the love song proved to be the perfect way to end the night. After Criss had performed as many different men (and women) throughout the course of the night, he was finally returning to the role he was born to play — San Francisco native Darren Criss behind the piano, performing on stage in his own hometown.

Broadway @ The Nourse will feature a performance by Sutton Foster on Jan. 26, 2016. Tickets are available here.

Rosemarie Alejandrino is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].