Matthew Morrison goes back to basics

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MORRISON. Makes show tunes accessible in “Where It All Began.” Photo by Brian Rasic

Matthew Morrison may have played Cory Monteith’s choir mentor on “Glee,” but the actor who portrays the passionate Mr. Shuester is, in reality, only three years older than the Canadian actor, who succumbed to an overdose of heroin and alcohol last week at age 31. —So, it’s no surprise why Morrison feels particularly close to his troubled “brother.”

It’s the worst of times and the best of times for Morrison—and the Dickensian yin and yang isn’t lost on him. But, the show must go on—and, if you go by his delightful back-to-basics collection, “Where It All Began,” it’s certainly something for the versatile performer to crow about!

Before the actor found fame in mainstream Hollywood via “Glee,” he racked up an impressive body of work on Broadway—with high-profile roles in “Hairspray” (his big break), “South Pacific” and “The Light in the Piazza,” for which he was nominated for a Tony award.

Unlike his pop-flavored 2011 debut album, Morrison’s latest compilation doesn’t feel like its (mostly show tunes) tracks have been forced on him, to pander to the faddish taste of the music industry’s young record-buying demographic.

Middle ground

If you don’t appreciate being inundated by a stage actor’s propensity for overwhelming vibrato, the 12-track recording shows the satisfying “middle ground” that Morrison finds in his renditions to make his swinging covers more accessible to pop-music fans—as he craftily demonstrates in the 1931 jazz standard, “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” and “On the Street Where You Live.”

Morrison’s style hews closer to the subtler, more judicious approach (although not the range) of John Barrowman. Unfortunately, the aforementioned vocal tack weighs down the innate theatricality and drama of his ballads (“As Long As She Needs Me,” “Come Rain or Come Shine/Basin Street Blues”), which, by tradition, “require” the steely pipes and brawny bravado of, say, Michael Ball, Patrick Wilson and Hugh Jackman. Exceptions: His stirring revivals of “Send in the Clowns” and “Hey There” (from “The Pajama Game”).

Aside from “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” two other standout tracks give the album its reason for being: The astutely conceived show-stopper, “West Side Story Medley,” strings together “Jet Song,” “Something’s Coming,” “Cool,” “America,” “Tonight” and “Maria”—and “Ease On Down The Road” (from “The Wiz”), Morrison’s blistering collaboration with Smokey Robinson!

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