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Hands Across the Sea: Some Americans Abroad

Theatre fans who can't get enough of Scott Siegel's popular Broadway By The Year series at Town Hall may want to petition (or give a large donation to) The New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) and demand more programs like last week's Hand's Across the Sea. Founded by Co-Artistic Directors Michael Barrett and Stephen Blier, NYFOS has produced nearly 100 vocal recitals dedicated to songs from both the classical and popular repertories. Though musical theatre is not their main focus, the company's Broadway-themed recitals which I've seen have been of consistently high quality.

Hands Across The Sea, performed at Merkin Concert Hall, featured songs by American composers from shows that premiered in London musicals, concentrating heavily on the first half of the 20th Century when the likes of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins all premiered a show or two via transatlantic. The theme was inspired by a backstage conversation Blier had one evening with cabaret legend and popular music historian Michael Feinstein. Another living musical theatre encyclopedia, Bob Kimball (known for editing volumes on the complete lyrics of Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Irving Berlin and Ira Gershwin) was recruited to supply both material and anecdotes.

As with all NYFOS concerts, Stephen Blier served as both sole accompanist, on piano, and master of ceremonies. He's an engaging host who, looking at the material from the viewpoint of a classical musician, often offers perspectives that musical theatre fans should find fresh and thought provoking.

The quartet of vocalists included two musical theatre favorites: the extraordinary singing actress and comedienne Mary Testa and the hilariously vaudevillian showman Jason Graae. Joining them were two fine singers who split their time between showtunes and the classical world: the versatile soprano Lisa Vroman and the lively and entertaining tenor Hal Cazalet.

Although we were still a long way from sexually explicit language in popular songs, Blier explained how Broadway lyricists had a bit more room in London's West End to express erotic imagery and suggest homosexuality. Rodgers and Hart's "Dancing on the Ceiling" (Evergreen, 1930) tells of a woman lying in bed at night, unable to sleep because she can hear the man who fascinates her, who lives in the room above, dancing the night away. Vroman effectively sang it with a lightly suggestive sexual intensity. Jason Graae emphasized the sardonic, self-depreciating humor in Cole Porter's "I'm a Gigolo" (Wake Up and Dream, 1929), sung by a gay man who rents himself out as an escort for elderly women at social functions.

Nymph Errant's plot, about a young girl determined to travel the world and have torrid affairs only to find all the men she meets want commitments, may have kept that 1933 West End hit from crossing the Atlantic, but it would have been interesting to hear the reaction to one of Cole Porter's more suggestive list songs, "The Physician". Vroman was delightfully perky, with a teasing wink, explaining how, "He said my bronchial tubes were entrancing / My epiglottis filled him with glee /He simply loved my larynx and was wild about my pharynx / But he never said he loved me."

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Michael Dale After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.


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