Cabaret Review: JASON ROBERT BROWN with MIKAL KILGORE (Samueli Hall at Segerstrom in Costa Mesa)

Post image for Cabaret Review: JASON ROBERT BROWN with MIKAL KILGORE (Samueli Hall at Segerstrom in Costa Mesa)

by Michael M. Landman-Karny on May 1, 2023

in Concerts / Events,Theater-Regional


Orange County audiences were treated to an all-too-rare occurrence — a cabaret appearance by Jason Robert Brown, one of today’s finest composer-lyricists. Since Jason Robert Brown no longer regularly performs due to his busy schedule, this was an opportunity to see a master of the musical theatre sing and perform his own work. He played three consecutive evenings that began April 27, 2023 at Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Samueli Hall, a perfect setting with tables, candles and cocktails..

While often compared to the late great Stephen Sondheim, 52-year-old Brown has taken quite a different path from Sondheim. While Sondheim is known for his complex and intricate melodies, Brown tends to write more straightforward and accessible melodies that are easier to sing and remember.  While Sondheim is widely regarded as a master of wordplay and intricate rhyming schemes, Brown’s lyrics are often more straightforward and focused on emotional depth and honesty. Brown paid homage to Saturday Night, a little-known Sondheim musical that takes place in 1920s Brooklyn.

In terms of subject matter, both Brown and Sondheim explore complex and challenging themes in their work. However, Sondheim tended to tackle darker and more cerebral subjects, while Brown’s work often focuses on more personal and intimate experiences. A notable exception is Brown’s Parade, a musical about the mob-lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia in 1915. An astounding revival of Parade is now playing on Broadway.

In his set, Jason Robert Brown virtuosically played piano with a crack trio including Linda Taylor on Guitar, Trey Henry on Bass, and Jamie Eblen on Drums. Mykal Kilgore was featured as a guest singer of six of the songs, including some from Songs for a New World, (1995), Brown’s first hit show (but no “The Stars and the Moon,” a modern standard made popular by Audra McDonald). Kilgore’s vocals reminded me of Billy Porter at his youthful prime — a soulful tenor with a dynamic falsetto who added an R&B flair to the proceedings.

As a Jason Robert Brown fan, I was swept away by the power and beauty of his music. Brown is a master storyteller, and his songs are full of vivid imagery, rich harmonies, unforgettable melodies, and often amazing riffs for accompaniment. He also shared anecdotes and insights into the creative process behind his songs, giving audiences a glimpse into the mind of one of the most talented and influential composers of our time. Jason’s voice showed some wear and tear but he effectively sang his songs, compensating with emotion for the rougher edges of his voice.

The set did include one of my favorites, “I love Betsy,” an up-tempo Sondheimesque song from Honeymoon in Vegas: filled with clever puns, this is a memorable tune which also drives the plot in the show. It’s a man singing about his love for his fiancée, noting her beauty, charm and wit but also speaks to the risks he’ll take to test her love”

I like taxis,
I like trains,
I like Brooklyn when it rains
But I love Betsy

I like walking after dark,
I like jogs in Prospect Park
But I love Betsy

I like Shake Shack,
I like MOMA,
And New Jersey’s ripe aroma…

Brown’s masterpiece Parade was represented by the song “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart,” sung by Leo Frank, the Jewish factory manager who is wrongly accused of rape in early 20th-century Georgia. Musically, it’s a ballad with a melancholy, introspective tone. The song features a simple, repetitive piano motif that underscores Leo’s feelings of isolation and desperation. The melody is haunting and plaintive, with a slow tempo that allows the emotion in the lyrics to come through. Lyrically, it’s a powerful expression of Leo’s inner turmoil. He sings about his struggle to make sense of the world around him, to understand why he has been accused of a crime he did not commit, and to come to terms with the bigotry that surrounds him. The lyrics are introspective and poetic, with vivid imagery and metaphors that reflect Leo’s complex emotional state:

It’s hard to speak my heart.
I’m not a man who bares his soul.
I let the moment pass me by –
I stay where I am in control.
I hide behind my work,
Safe and sure of what to say…

I know I must seem hard,
I know I must seem cold.
I never touched that girl –
You think I’d hurt a child yet?
I’d hardly seen her face before –
I swear – I swore we’d barely met.

These people try to scare you
With things I’ve never said.
I know it makes no sense.
I swear I don’t know why…
You see me as I am – You can’t believe I’d lie –
You can’t believe I’d do these deeds –

A little man who’s scared and blind,
Too lost to find the words he needs.
I never touched that child –
God –  I never raised my hand!

I stand before you now…
Incredibly afraid.
I pray you understand.

Brown’s musicalization of The Bridges of Madison County (my personal favorite show of his) featured the song “It All Fades Away” (I thought that love would last forever / I was wrong). The male protagonist reflects on an extra-marital affair that once burned brightly but has now faded away, leaving only memories in its wake. Despite the pain of this realization, the narrator acknowledges that this is simply a part of life: And now I know that hearts can break / And love, it all fades away. He contrasts the ephemeral nature of love with the eternal beauty of nature. The melody is understated and plaintive, matching the introspective mood of the lyrics. The song features a slow, steady tempo and a simple chord progression that allows the lyrics to take center stage.

The highlight of the evening was Mykal Kilgore’s’ rendition of Songs for a New World‘s “King of the World,” an upbeat, rock-inspired number with a driving rhythm and memorable guitar riffs. The song features a catchy, anthemic chorus that encourages the listener to “take control” of their life and make their dreams a reality. The musical arrangement creates a sense of momentum and energy, driving the song forward and underscoring its theme of empowerment and self-determination. Lyrically, “King of the World” is a song of self-reflection and self-empowerment. The protagonist looks back on his life and acknowledges the mistakes he has made, but also recognizes that he has the power to shape his future and achieve his goals. He sings about wanting to be “king of the world,” to take control of his destiny and create a life that he can be proud of. This piece is notoriously difficult to sing. The song’s range covers a wide vocal span, from a low tenor to high falsetto. The song’s rhythm and tempo are complex, with rapid-fire lyrics and frequent time signature changes. It requires precise timing and a strong sense of rhythm to execute the lyrics and musical arrangement with accuracy while projecting incredible intensity. Kilgore’s effortless pyrotechnics had this reviewer spellbound.

Brown finished the show with a spirited “Melinda” and, as a final encore, his caressing lyrics and vocals in a somber but hopeful “All Things In Time,” both from his album How We React and How We Recover.

Tickets to Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ 2023-2024 Cabaret Series can be purchased online at, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am) located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit

Leave a Comment