07/02/2012 09:59 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

First Nighter: Brian d'Arcy James an Overnight Sensation at 54 Below

Brian d'Arcy James is doing his effervescent best to prove the opening season of cabaret room 54 Below is as significant a boost to the unfairly marginalizated genre as Manhattan has seen in many an entertainment year.

You probably know the handsome, bantam-sized fellow's name from his distinguished musical comedy career. Yes, he's the one who regularly glopped stuff on his chiseled face to play the Shrek tuner title character. You also probably know him from his equally impressive straight acting gigs. Yes, he was the loyal stay-at-home husband to Laura Linney's peripatetic photojournalist wife in Donald Margulies's Time Stands Still. You may know him better still from NBC's Smash, although he's been dropped from the second go-round in yet another of the series's inexplicable producing gaffes -- er, decisions.

If you're getting the idea he can do anything, you're right, but you don't know the half of it. Turns out that though he's never done the intimate-room trip before, he's an ideal addition to the ranks. Behaving as if he's been playing boites all his life, he commands the stage with as effortless an ease as a fan (count me as one) could wish.

He calls the show "Under the Influence," a cute pun involving the songs of the '70s and '80s that thrilled him when he was growing up as one of several sibs in Grand Rapids. Chatting affably about the early days warbling for his own pleasure, he cites a Billy Joel concert he attended when still a kid as a primary influence and includes three Joel songs in homage to his absent mentor.

James -- who moves with a kind of Gene Kelly grace or often just stands relatively still clasping his expressive hands -- uses two voices alternately. Not surprisingly, he puts the muscle in his baritone behind the rockier songs, such as Joel's cynical "Everybody Loves You Now," his opening "Take It As It Comes" and Adele's "I'll Be Waiting." He goes seductively tender on Joel's "She's Got a Way," the much-loved Squeeze "Tempted," which benefits immeasurably from acting chops not common to rock groups, and Gabe Dixon's prayer-like "All Will Be Well." Occasionally, he combines the two voices, as happened during the Genesis "That's All."

Because he's ineffably comfortable with the fourth wall he usually faces removed, he banters just enough about himself to establish his basic good-looking-boy-next-door appeal and not so much to get cloying about it. He recalls running into composer Matthew Sklar one day who said he'd dreamed a Brian d'Arcy James theme song the night before and then hummed the dream riff for him. D'Arcy James asked him to write it down for this show, and while the singer's seven-man band played it, he did a funky dance. Later, he invited visiting sister Anne James-Noonan, his earliest chirping partner, to join him on the Carly Simon-James Taylor "Mockingbird" arrangement, whereupon the clarion duo soared into this particular show's highlight.

Think that's the end of the kid's talents? Think again. He writes songs, too, and with musical director Dan Lipton has written "Don't Hold It Against Me," a pop ballad that could, were the right commercial winds blowing, have a life of its own. The fervor with which he delivered it was another confirmation of emotional depths.

Backing d'Arcy James is a gritty ensemble that always amazing accompanist Lipton gathered -- guitarist Erik Della Penna, trumpeter Bob Millikan, saxophonist Paul Vercesi, drummer Damien Bassman, bassist Nicholas D'Amato and percussionist Greg Joseph. About them d'Arcy James was rightfully gracious and showed the same gentlemanly appreciation for back-up-singing pals Haven Burton, recently a Shrek Fiona, and Clarke Thorell, soon to be Rooster in the Annie revival.

Too rarely has performing class had the consistent sizzle that Brian d'Arcy brought to this new and promising stage.