Sean Stephens’ “REDEMPTION OF A ’90’S KID”: A Review

Sean Stephens’ life-affirming autobiographical musical solo piece, Redemption of a ’90’s Kid, kicked off with the introduction for the video for Reba McIntire’s FancyFancy owns its place in the Reba-verse as a musical saga which McIntire herself has called “her possible signature hit”.  As the video faded and Sean broke into his own rendition of Fancy, two things became apparent to the audience at Feinstein’s/Below 54 on Thursday, March 3rd: (1) The message of Reba’s song and video is about looking back at your past, mirroring Sean’s own remembrance of his journey in finding success as a performer; and (2) Sean truly does Fancy HIS way, pumping the song with an impressively youthful life force.  Throughout Redemption of a ’90’s Kid, Stephens continues the phenomenon of making every song truly his own, showing both personal charisma and an admirable vocal range. He knows how to move on stage and to make eye contact with his audience, complete with that occasional wink.  In between songs, he shares a lot of stories from his life: It became clear to the attendees at Feinstein’s/Below 54 that night that the singer wears his heart on his sleeve.  This can be hit or miss for a live performer; but in Stephens’ case, it works.  Many of the songs chosen that night– which ranged from hits from LeAnn, Barbra, and Judy to the Rent soundtrack (more about Rent later…)– are very challenging, even for the most experienced singers. It can’t be easy to compete with Annie Lennox’ powerful “vox” on Walking on Broken Glass (or any other Annie Lennox song, for that matter…).  But Sean succeeds… and adds a few new personalized touches to the beloved hits as well. That night, he also gave the audience two of his own original songs.  It’s hard not to hear the “’90’s” in these songs by a self-proclaimed ’90’s Kid.  The boy band vibe, so popular at the time, comes through in What Am I To Do, while Violet Wonderland is a bona fide party song.  Sean even raps!

The audience learns a bit about the performer’s early life in this show: Raised in Union, South Carolina, one of his inspirations was the “life changing” Broadway show and subsequent movie Rent, which gave the singer the chance to not only perform in a local production, but also gave him a chance to do a lush duet in 2022 with his first special guest of the night, Walter Graham.  The song was No Day But Today.  Sean made the pilgrimage to New York City to fulfill his artistic goals, following the generations of performers who also came to “New Yawk” to find what can’t be found in a small town. As a young gay guy let loose in a very gay Hell’s Kitchen, it’s safe to say that Sean came into his own in 2011, when he was going out every night. And, of course, the perfect song for this is yet another song from Rent: Out Tonight, with lyrics like:

Let’s go out tonight,I have to go out tonight;
You wanna prowl, be my night owl?
Well take my hand we’re gonna howl!
Out tonight!

Stephens has made good on his goals so far.  He was last seen in Off-Broadway’s Camp Morning Wood at New York City’s Asylum. for which he earned a “Broadway World Best Actor in an Off-Broadway Musical” Award nomination.  On this night, Stephens had the spotlight to himself, although he surrounded himself with excellent musicians (Ashley Baier on drums, with Najee Gabay and Beda Spindola on background vocals.)  He was accompanied at various times throughout the show with a diverse lineup of guest stars.  Sean Doherty, whose voice was seemingly custom-made for power ballads, teamed up with Stephens for the Streisand/Dion duet Tell Him.  I’m gonna get hate mail for this, but here it goes: I liked this sexed-up version from the two Seans better than the big, wet original.  The rapport with each of the special guest artists was amazing, but one of the climaxes in a night of multiple musical orgasms was when the larger-than-life Marti Gould Cummings joined Stephens for Wig in a Box from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  In keeping with the tradition of the Broadway play and the movie, the audience was supplied with those deliciously infectious lyrics, via projection: 

I put on some make-up,

Turn up the eight-track,

I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf ...”

But the audience didn’t need to see the lyrics. Everyone seemed to know them already. (I know that Rent fans are called “Rentheads”.  What are Hedwig fans called?  Please contact me if you know…)  Between the love for this song and the synergetic energy between Stephens and Cummings, this number was a “cheeky” delight.  For the “unsung hero” song of the show, the thoroughly delightful Emerson Steele joined Sean for “I2I” (pronounced “Eye to Eye“), from the 1995 Disney film, A Goofy Movie.

Of course, the story of Stephens’ journey from Southern child to New York City performer was not one continuous party.  The singer shared about how he spent “seven years of grief and terrible darkness” from the death of his mother, to which he dedicated How Do I Live? by LeAnn Rimes.  There was not one dry eye in the entire theater during this stripped down performance, which featured some spine-tingling high notes and equally spine-tingling raw emotion. Later, he shared that one of the effects of his loss was that he and his father, who was in the audience that night, had become much closer.  The pride in his father’s eyes was quite palpable… and, in this reviewer’s opinion, worth the price of admission alone.  How can I summarize Redemption of a ’90’s Kid?  Here goes: In his choice of songs from (mostly female) musical icons who influenced his life course, Stephens more than holds his own; he MAKES them his own. Sean is at his best when… well, he’s just being Sean!

Redemption of a ’90’s Kid was Directed by Robbie Rozelle with Musical Direction by Mason Griffin.

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