He may answer to a different name, but he is Jose Llana by birth. The accomplished Broadway star achieved the vocal equivalent of a near home run on Monday night with his live performance at Joe’s Pub. Llana, who starred in the Public Theater’s smash hit production of Here Lies Love, was joined by his former cast mates from the musical including Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles, Jaygee Macapugay, Jeigh Madjus, and Enrico Rodriguez .
They were all on hand to celebrate the release of Llana’s new album, “Altitude”. The eclectic mix “honors composers who’ve kept me gainfully employed and who make me want to keep reaching for higher altitudes,” he said. Throughout his 20 year career, he has undeniably continued to achieve those heights, including his recent stint as the leading man in the current Broadway production of The King and I. Fortunately, his enthusiastic fans were treated to three selections from the Rodgers and Hammerstein score: “We Kiss In A Shadow/I Have Dreamed”, and later, “A Puzzlement”. As a then recent college graduate, Llana shared an amusing anecdote of how he made his Broadway debut in the 1996 Broadway revival of the same show. The audition monitor called for “Robert” and after a few beats of no one stepping forth, he ran to the room, claimed his name as “Robert” and sang for the casting directors. In spite of a guilt ridden admittance that he was not who he said he was, all was forgiven, the job was offered and a new star was born. Mad props for ingenuity and chutzpah!
Llana continued to infuse new life into other magnificent works including Leonard Bernstein’s On The Town. He portrayed leading man, Gabey in the 1997 Shakespeare in the Park production and brought a soulful, yearning spirit to “Lonely Town”.
In 2005, his career found him competing against other precocious kids in William Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee as Chip Tolentino. Chip’s early elimination from the contest forces an explanation in song (“Chip’s Lament”.) The adorably amusing number requires incredible range and Llana, who recreated the song, found himself vocally cracking near the end of it. With wry self-deprecation, he stopped his band (masterfully directed by Kimberly Grigsby) and gave it another whirl–this time nailing it.
Hardly a Broadway concert goes by without Stephen Sondheim in the recipe and the openly gay singer paid homage to marriage equality with “Marry Me A Little” from Company, followed by a tribute to his mother with “She is More” from Pretty Dead Girl. Trust me here; in spite of the show’s morbid title, it was a lovely testament to a mother who sacrificed much to bring her family to America from the Philippines during the oppressive Ferdinand Marcos regime.
Ironically, Llana would go on to play the reviled political dictator in Here Lies Love, which found him once again at the Public Theater. Taking the liberty of a studio recording, he opted to perform a selection from the show (“Child of the Phillipines”) which was written for the more benevolvent character of Benigno Aquino, Jr. and originally performed by television star Conrad Ricamora. Ricamora was in attendance and led the audience in a spirited clap-along as Llana sang the David Byrne duet with Ann Miles.
Llana turned to composer Adam Guettel, performing complex and audibly pleasing music from Saturn Returns: A Concert. The song cycle premiered at the Public Theater in 1998 and Llana was among the cast. His backup singers, Macapugay, Madjus, and Rodriguez handled the intricate harmonies in the title number and “Icarus” with sharp precision.
More dedications were made throughout the night as Llana showed his pop side on “Thinking Out Loud”, the Grammy award winning song from Ed Sheeran. Llana dedicated it to his boyfriend. Later, he spoke affectionately about his nieces and nephews and performed a gorgeous version of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” in their honor. Fortunately, the wait staff hadn’t yet removed the table napkins; they came in handy for the deeply moved audience.
His pattern was brief, casual, and focused and Llana certainly does not lack for confidence (although he does sweat a hell of a lot!). He is one of the few Broadway singers whose voice is nimble enough to handle light pop as well as legitimate musical theater material. It’s refreshing to listen to his vocal tone, especially in his upper register. He is able to deliver a direct tone, avoiding the common mistake that many singers make of spreading vowels as wide as Wyoming. His technique is much more pleasing on the ears and even without the aid of amplification, Llana proves that he is an artist capable of delivering a consistently raw, unmanufactured sound. In short, the man can not only entertain—he can sing! Keep on soaring.