As spring begins saving daylight and more performing arts venues start vocalizing and stretching after their long, enforced slumber, Bay Area music patrons are beginning to wrestle with their favorite conundrum — the “embarrassment of riches” syndrome.
Fortunately for Broadway and cabaret fans, this weekend allows for an “and,” not “or,” resolution.
First, you can catch up with local favorite jazz singer Spencer Day as he dips a toe into the show tune canon at Feinstein’s at the Nikko on Friday and Saturday.
Then, take advantage of a debut visit from Tony-winner Santino Fontana, courtesy of the return of Marilyn Levinson’s Bay Area Cabaret to the Venetian Room at the Fairmont on Sunday.
Former city-dweller Day is coming home, spiritually at least, to try out new material from his recent “Broadway by Day” release on the Club 44 Records label. The album is a bit of a throwback to the pre-rock days when Broadway drove popular music, and every major artist from Ella Fitzgerald to Mel Tormé recorded covers of songs, if not entire scores from musicals.
It will be family reunion time for California native Fontana, as well as a chance to close the loop on the concert engagement derailed by COVID. “I was still doing ‘Tootsie’ (on Broadway]) and the history of the (Venetian) Room and who had sung there before, plus the fact that a lot of my family has never come East to see me perform, so it was perfect. So now it is again, and this is one of the first performances I’ve booked since everything shut down.”
Santino Anthony Fontana was born in Stockton and left at age 10, but the roots run deep. “My parents were born in Antioch, I have cousins in Modesto, and in San Francisco, and Brentwood, Riverside, Rodeo, and I’m very familiar with the East Bay,” he says, “but I’ve never performed here.”
Not even on a tour? “I’ve never toured. I missed that boat somehow, which is weird because I love traveling.”
He did spend time in San Francisco. “We’d go to museums and ball games. I was at the Giants game in 1989,” he adds, referring to the game famously stopped by the Loma Prieta earthquake. “Yeah. My dad took me out of school that day. I was 7.”
Multifaceted is an overused word in entertainment career jargon, but it really fits in Fontana’s case. Whenever he meets a fan, it’s easy to quickly peg whether they are Team CXG (for followers of his two-year run as Greg Serrano on the musical series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), Team Broadway (for “Tootsie,” “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” or other titles from his decade-long-and-counting New York stage career), Team Hans (for his voice work in the “Frozen” franchise), Team You (for the sociopath he voices in the popular trilogy of Caroline Kepnes audiobooks) or lately Team Midge (from his turn as strip club manager Boise in the current season of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime).
The “Frozen” fans, primarily kids, provide a unique opportunity because the film is animated. “It’s the best thing. You have this giant secret nobody knows. This kid at a restaurant was being kinda fussy, and his mom opened a laptop and started the movie. I could really either make his day or scare the hell out of him. There’s nothing else like that feeling,” he laughs. “So odd, but great.”
Fontana likes to keep his concert setlist loose for Sunday. It could include songs from Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle,” which he recently performed in concert with Vanessa Williams. “It was a really fun night but also stressful because it’s a hard score, and I only got one shot at it.” Well, not exactly. “My high school did ‘Anyone Can Whistle,’” he adds with a giggle. “I was a freshman, and I directed a production of it in college.” When the Fairmont returned to his calendar, he realized his concert music book had actually been sitting in San Francisco for two years. “I didn’t need it for a while,” he jokes, “so there may be some audience participation in the choosing of songs.”
Spencer Day has also been wrestling with song choices putting the “Broadway By Day” set together. “I’ve never done a full-on swinging ‘jazz-standards’ record, and I didn’t want to be lazy and do the same songs that everybody else does. Much as I love ‘Summertime,’ I can’t really think of anything I would do with that song that hasn’t been done better by a lot of other people.”
The pandemic unexpectedly quarantined him in Mexico. “I was there for some shows that didn’t end up happening, but in the process connected with some great musicians there and a studio.” A trade of studio time for voice talent allowed him to spend the enforced hiatus productively. “I’m now the voice for a public service announcement in Guadalajara!”
Jazz, Day’s usual milieu, and Broadway were cordial but only occasional collaborators. Some scores from the 1950s and ’60s, like “West Side Story” and “My Fair Lady,” have been embraced for instrumental riffs by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, and Shelly Manne. However, the practice declined from the 1970s onward. “As someone who loves both genres, I think that there developed an elitism in jazz that viewed Broadway as too cheesy, or too gay, and I think Broadway people view jazz as something that became really esoteric and inaccessible.”
He’s tried to bridge that and a generation gap with Golden Age titles by Rodgers and Hammerstein blended with birthday sharers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim, plus cuts from “Annie” and “A Chorus Line.”
“We really wanted to find songs where we could do something surprising but not gimmicky. Just because you can record ‘Old Man River’ in 7/8-time as a mambo doesn’t mean that’s really what that song wants to be. You kind of have to listen to it with respect and accept it for how it wants to live.”
IF YOU GO:
Where: Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., S.F.
When: Doors 7 p.m., Show 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Apr. 8-9
Contact: (866) 663-1063, www.feinsteinssf.com
Presented by Bay Area Cabaret
Where: Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., S.F.
When: 5 p.m. Sunday, Apr. 10
Contact: (415) 927-INFO (4636), www.cityboxoffice.com