With John Gallagher Jr., heartbreak feels good at a place like Kennedy Center

In heartfelt original music and moving covers, Gallagher revealed his easy versatility across genres, and his stellar dramatic talents were on full display.

With five Broadway credits under his belt, John Gallagher Jr. is unquestionably a bona fide star of the stage. But in his solo turn as part of the Renée Fleming Voices series at the Kennedy Center’s Studio K Saturday night, musical theater fans were hard-pressed to find any familiar show tunes on the bill. Nevertheless, in his tight 70-minute set of heartfelt original music and moving covers, Gallagher revealed his easy versatility across genres, blending folk, punk, rock, and country. And even in these varying styles, his stellar dramatic talents were on full display.

An instinctive storyteller, Gallagher appeared to approach each song as a singular dramatic work, contorting his face and punctuating lyrical details, including references to mini golf courses, Super Bowl Sunday, and Redondo Beach. Transitioning in and out of playful audience banter while tuning his temperamental guitar, his demeanor immediately shifted on the first strums to something broody and moody. That recurrent angst is reminiscent of his well-remembered performances as Moritz Stiefel in Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening (for which he won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical) and Johnny in Michael Mayer and Green Day’s American Idiot.

John Gallagher Jr. Photo by Marc J. Franklin.

But this Gallagher is virtually unrecognizable from those earlier characterizations. In its aging, Gallagher’s voice has developed a richness and depth not present in earlier recordings of his work. Like the punch of a potent, top-shelf whiskey, Gallagher’s sound is biting but not burning. He sings freely, but intuitively, lingering in unexpected places to add emotional heft. Singing many of his own songs, Gallagher of course has an inherent connection to the work, delivering each like a fleeting memory; a tidy package enclosing a past dream or dashed hope, flashed briefly before our ears and then disappearing into the ether. When a song ends, his eyes open and his smile returns, you can feel Gallagher, and the room, exhale in unison.

In “Sarasota Someone,” a cross between The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Weezer’s “Island in the Sun,” Gallagher dreams of leaving behind the lonely New York City winter to find a lover on a Florida beach. A haunting, pared-back cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Fisher Road to Hollywood” is surely informed by Gallagher’s work on both stage and screen. And in several songs from his coming album, including “Goodbye or Something” and “Hidden Ring,” Gallagher pulls back some of his edge to blur the lines between romantic whimsy, longing, and heartbreak.

Unlike his last appearance in DC, in the Avett Brothers and John Logan’s Swept Away at Arena Stage, there is nothing remotely sinister about Gallagher’s performance. Instead, he is endlessly charming and self-deprecating. With a toss of his hair and cheeky grin, he effortlessly elicits what amounts to a collective blush from the audience. If every high school theater program has the mysterious boy who makes the girls (and, likely, boys) swoon with his irreverent air and intermediate guitar skills, Gallagher is the proxy of that young man grown up and evolved into his most successful final form.

And if the Voices series is designed to give audiences a glimpse into the truest part of an artist’s musical soul, then count Gallagher’s outing as a rousing success. Like the men stranded at sea in Swept Away, a singer onstage with only a guitar and the audience to keep him company has few lifelines at his disposal. Fortunately, Gallagher wholly embraces such vulnerability, putting the audience at ease enough to confront and heal their broken hearts right along with him. With him onstage, heartbreak feels good in a place like the Club at Studio K.

John Gallagher Jr. played a one-night engagement on March 9, 2024, at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts Club in the Club at Studio K, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC.


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