Tom Wopat: From Luke Duke to Latter-Day Sinatra

If all you know of Tom Wopat is his six-season run as Luke Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard, then there is, musically speaking, a lot you’ve been missing out on. Prior to that career-defining TV role, Wopat got his start on Broadway, landing the lead role in the musical I Love My Wife mere months after his arrival in New York back in 1978. He was just 26 at the time. Throughout the subsequent quarter-century Wopat has returned to Broadway multiple times, headlining such diverse musical projects as City of Angels, revivals of Guys and Dolls, Chicago and Annie Get Your Gun, Harvey Fierstein’s A Catered Affair and the acclaimed 2010 review Sondheim by Sondheim opposite Barbara Cook. Currently, Wopat is starring in the Tony-winning, musical adaptation of the Steven Spielberg film Catch Me If You Can, playing Frank Abagnale, father of the remarkably skilled con artist Frank Jr. (Aaron Tveit). The show’s score, by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman, includes five songs performed by Wopat.

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Over the years, Wopat has also carved out a significant, if never properly appreciated, recording career. Between 1983 and 1995, he released five albums of pop and country material, and scored a handful of minor chart hits, most notably with 1986’s “The Rock and Roll of Love.” But in 2000, with Dukes a decade-and-a-half behind him, Wopat reinvented himself as a jazz singer with the estimable, all-standards collection The Still of the Night. The Harold Arlen tribute Dissertation On the State of Bliss followed six years later, and included one of the finest interpretations of “If I Only Had a Brain” yet recorded.

Now, another five years having passed, Wopat is back with Consider It Swung, a far more wide-ranging album. New York Times music critic Stephen Holden, whose knowledge of jazz and cabaret singers is likely unequalled, has aptly compared Wopat to the later-career Sinatra. His gravelly baritone is singularly engaging and, like Sinatra, he has an actor’s ability to fully embrace a lyric, digging to the roots of each song’s story. Working alongside four of Manhattan’s finest — pianist Tedd Firth, bassist David Finck, drummer Peter Grant and saxophonist Bob Malach — Wopat opens with a Sinatra hit, delivering a winningly understated “That’s Life” that is more shruggingly acceptant than world-weary. There are nods to the Gershwins, Cy Coleman and Harry Warren with, respectively, a breezy “But Not for Me,” a marvelously lithe “You Fascinate Me So” and an intriguingly balladic treatment of “42nd Street.”

But Wopat is equally, if not more, appealing when he ventures beyond the Great American Songbook. Bobbie Gentry’s delta mini-drama “Ode to Billie Joe” is particularly well suited to his story-weaving skills, as are Joni Mitchell’s wistful “2 Grey Rooms” and “You’d Rather Have the Blues,” Dave Frishberg’s delightfully cynical portrait of a perpetual pessimist. His bluesy retelling of Delbert McClinton’s “Maybe Someday Baby” is a first-rate scorcher that swings with Joe Williams gutsiness, his hazy reading of “Deacon Blues” is earthier than the Steely Dan original and there’s plenty of soulful swagger in his “A Natural Man.”

Wopat includes just one Catch Me If You Can tune, the swaying, optimistic-fueled “50 Checks” which was cut from the show before it landed in New York. He also demonstrates that his musical acumen extends to songwriting with the gently propulsive “Thailand Seas,” a shimmering tale of tropical romance inspired by a long-ago movie sojourn.

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