by Steven Pisano
The "American Songbook" series presented by Lincoln Center for over 20 years has been a reliably top-notch showcase for showing off the strengths of American songwriting. Some of the artists are singer-songwriters; others are interpreters of other people's songs. On Friday night in the Appel Room, the Filipino-American singer Jose Llana took the stage singing a range of songs from Stevie Wonder and Billy Joel, to Stephen Sondheim and William Finn.
Llana is best known in Broadway circles for two defining roles--in 2015, as the King in Lincoln Center Theater's Tony award-winning production of The King and I, succeeding the original star Ken Watanabe, playing opposite Kelli O'Hara; and for his portrayal of Ferdinand Marcos in the Public Theater's 2013 production of Here Lies Love written by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Along the way, he also had roles on Broadway in Rent, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and the revival of Flower Drum Song, amongst other roles.
Llana is a polished and confident performer, switching gears smoothly as he changed moods throughout the show. In typical Broadway style, he can belt it with the best of them. But he can also rock out and sing tender and emotional songs. Highlights included Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," Stephen Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little," and the heart-wrenching "Anytime (I Am There)" by William Finn.
Between songs, Llana told stories about the shows he's been in, about how his mom's Filipino cooking put 10 pounds on him when he toured to Washington, DC, and how he married his partner of 13 years last August. He also spoke proudly about the increasing practice of Broadway and Hollywood to use Asian performers in Asian roles.
The snappy 11-person orchestra was led by musical director Kimberly Grigsby, with orchestrations by John Clancy and Michael Starobin. The excellent back-up vocals were supplied by Jaygee Macapugay, Jeigh Madjus, Billy Bustamante, and Renee Albulario.