BWW Reviews: Broadway's Best Voices Pay Tribute to Marvin Hamlisch in THEY'RE PLAYING HIS SONGS at the McCallum Theatre
Last night I spent what was my hands-down favorite evening in the theatre in the past several months thanks to the talents of David Zippel, Jason Graae, Christiane Noll, Lillias White, Karen Ziemba and the marvelous melodies of Marvin Hamlisch. Not to mention special guest star Lucie Arnaz. HOORAY for The McCallum Theatre and CEO Mitch Gershenfeld - generally a presenting house - for producing such a warm and wonderful evening in tribute to one of popular and theatre music's greatest, yet often overlooked, composers.
The show started with, what else - "They're Playing Our Song" with clever new lyrics written (I am assuming by Mr. Zippel) to set up the evening ahead - a celebration of the life and songbook of Mr. Hamlisch. There was such a joyful spirit and comraderie among the singers that was truly infectious. From start to finish the concert was brimming with great talent and great heart. The harmonies were crisp and clean and glorious.
The cast was outstanding! Karen Ziemba was flawless! Her "Music And The Mirror" was a monologue set to music - so subtly nuanced - and her vocals soared. Her "If You Remember Me" was perfection. She makes every lyric count and gives meaning to every note she sings. Masterful!
Christiane Noll was breathtaking. Literally taking my breath away with her special gifts of both lyric interpretation and vocal expertise. She is proof that Broadway Singers can do what no other singers are capable of doing - bringing a song life and purpose and depth and meaning and character. She moves effortlessly and seamlessly from her lyrical voice to her belt and back again and both the gentleness and the power of her voice sweep over you draw you close. Such clarity. Such strength. She sang Maggie in "At The Ballet" and it was poignant and painful and thrilling. Her "Through The Eyes Of Love" (the theme from "Ice Castles") was so moving and story driven that it was as if I had never heard the song sung before. And her "Ordinary Miracles" was a lesson in restraint - less is more - to great emotional effect.
Jason Graae is a "magician" with a lyric. I have witnessed him over the years take mediocre material and make it great. In this case, he had great material to work with and proved once again that he is sheer comic genius. His broad yet controlled physicality and his incomparable interpretation of a lyric, ANY lyric, are pure magic. "Smile" and "Dance Ten Looks Three" (yes, he sang it) were a joy to observe. With Mr. Graae every second counts and if you blink you miss a moment of brilliance. He sang the pants off "Let Go" (a duet with Ms. White) and had the opportunity to show off the golden voice that is often overlooked for comedy. One of the best bits in the show was an improvised bit of comedy with Ms. Ziemba due to a microphone mishap - hard to describe but delicious to watch.
David Zippel's direction was easy and elegant. He staged the show "just enough" and let the actors do the rest - the show never intruded on the music, which was the point. It was simple and beautiful and executed with great style and tremendous warmth. Christopher Marlowe's musical direction was top notch and his solo turn at "The Entertainer" from THE STING was superbly emotional and engaging.
If there was a weak "link in the chain", I hate to say it because I so admire her - it was Lillias White. Her charisma and style and performance fill the theatre however in almost every solo turn she was pitchy and flat. Almost every sustained note in every song was a hair under pitch and it became a bit cloying. When she went into "riff" mode she was spectacular, but this particular songbook did not show her off at her best. She was tasked with singing "The Way We Were" - the eleven o'clock song in this show (which was at 9:25 because in the desert everybody goes to bed early) - and she was not vocally up to the task. She was under pitch throughout and her lyric interpretation did not match the challenge of the song. It is a song that is too well known and too well loved to be given less than a perfect treatment, and it brought the show down just as it was coming to a close. Mr. Zippel would have been better assigning it to Ms. Noll or Ms. Ziemba. Sorry Lillias!
Lucie Arnaz was a joyful addition to the show and she performed two of her numbers from "They're Playing Our Song" - "Falling" and "If He Really Knew Me". What she lacked in vocal expertise she made up for in acting chops. She comes off with tremendous class and really knows how to play to her strengths. Her reverence for Mr. Hamlisch was obvious and very touching.
A highlight of the show - the entire cast sang a fluffy pop song "Sunshine And Lollipops" which might have been a forgettable throwaway. But it was fun and frivolous and joyful. Their were four "stars" on stage at once doing solo turns and fantastic tandem singing - there was terrific chemistry and great respect between them. Unlike other "Broadway revues" I have recently reviewed this production was organic and genuine and filled with heart and spirit. It was "special" and, as I have said before. "special" is what an audience deserves in the theatre.
In between songs, Zippel put together a multi-media presentation that featured some great photo stills and personal interviews with Mr. Hamlisch about his life and career. It was very touching and, because Mr. Hamlisch had such a great sense of humor, at times very funny.
KUDOS all around for an inspiring and elegant evening in the theatre. I strongly encourage the McCallum to take note and produce more. Well done. Deeply felt. For more information or tickets for upcoming productions at The McCallum Theatre visit www.mccallumtheatre.org.