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Review: Nicholas Rodriguez at Orlando Cabaret Festival

Nicholas Rodriguez is a bit of a tease. The Broadway actor, headlining this weekend at the Orlando Cabaret Festival, has titled his show "The First Time…" and the preshow publicity coyly reminds us that "You always remember your first time…"

We're all thinking the same thing here, right? Don't worry, we're not alone.

"When I told my friends about 'The First Time…' their minds were in the gutter," he tells the audience during his well-crafted cabaret, flashing his dazzling smile.

But Rodriguez never delves into any salacious details at all, and it's hard to picture him sharing sordid stories around the watercooler. With a youthful catch in his voice, he seems earnest, romantic and most of all, upbeat.

Those are pleasant qualities to spend an evening with, and in Rodriguez's case they're matched with a lovely tenor that complements a wide variety of songs — from old-school country to showtunes to today's radio hits.

There is a certain formula to many of the arrangements, devised by Rodriguez and pianist Mark Hartman. Rodriguez likes a quieter start, an increase in tempo and a strong, full-voiced finish. But it's a formula that suits him well and proves especially effective on his version of Etta James' "At Last," which builds from a whisper to a triumphant declaration.

More interesting is the way the arrangements give familiar songs a new spin.

Dolly Parton's "Jolene" becomes less a plaintive plea, more an act of defiance. Syrupy "I've Never Been in Love Before" from "Guys & Dolls" gets a percolating beat, something you could mambo to.

Rodriguez performed last month in a "Guys & Dolls" concert at New York's Carnegie Hall. Soap fans might remember him as Nick Chavez from "One Life to Live." In another "first time," on that show Rodriguez played the third leg in daytime drama's first gay love triangle.

He made his Broadway debut in Disney's "Tarzan" musical, and off-Broadway appeared in "The Toxic Avenger: The Musical," "Bajour," "Colette Collage" and "Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver." He paid tribute to the latter show with a heartfelt "Leaving on a Jet Plane."

Intriguing medleys also pay off in "The First Time…" A mix of 1930s standard "Sunny Side of the Street" and Sheryl Crow's 1994 hit "All I Wanna Do" works musically and nicely dovetails with the story of Rodriguez's first trip to California.

When he bobbles a word or entrance, like on the bridge of "You'll Be in My Heart," his charming manner carries him through. And he bravely leaves himself a challenge for the last moment of the show — but with a perfectly pitched and sweetly pure note to end the standard "That's All," Rodriguez nails it.

Nicholas Rodriguez

What: 'The First Time…' at the Orlando Cabaret Festival

Length: 80 minutes, no intermission

Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, May 2-3

Tickets: $35

Call: 407-297-8788

• Online: orlandocabaretfestival.com

Orlando Cabaret Festival

What: 18 days of lunchtime and evening performances. The final weekend's headliner is Laura Benanti (8:30 p.m. May 9-10)

Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 54 W. Church St., Orlando

When: Daily, through May 11

Tickets: $35-$55 for headliners; $12-$25 for other shows

Call: 407-297-8788

Online: Check the complete schedule at orlandocabaretfestival.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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