Review - Isaiah Fest & Wonder of the World

When Isaiah Sheffer first walked into the dilapidated movie house on Broadway and 95th Street in the late '70s he saw some kind of makeshift boxing ring on the creaky stage. But what he envisioned was a great center for the arts on the Upper West Side that filled the wide cultural gap between Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

In January of 1978, he and Allan Miller organized a day-long free concert called Wall to Wall Bach, igniting the first of many legacies Sheffer leaves as he steps away from his 32-year position as Artistic Director of Symphony Space and begins a less-hectic career with the new title of Founding Artistic Director.

On Monday evening, June 7th, Symphony Space held a special benefit performance in Sheffer's honor, with tributes, songs and readings celebrating his many outstanding accomplishments in establishing the venue as one of New York's most valuable multi-cultural centers for the performing arts.

With music director Lanny Meyers leading the on-stage band, the evening opened on a jaunty note with host and director James Naughton putting on his best Tom Jones-ish vocals for the parody lyrics of "Why, Why, Why, Isaiah?," followed by a Gilbert and Sullivan spoof praising, "The Very Model of a Director Artistical." Both numbers had lyrics by Martin Sage with Naughton being joined by the ensemble of The Thalia Follies (Ivy Austin, Mary Brienza, Sidney J. Burgoyne, David Buskin, Kathryn Markey, Leenya Rideout, and Lisa Flanagan), the political and social satire song and sketch show Sheffer co-created.

Sheffer's own lyrics were enjoyed throughout the evening, such as his parody of "The Candy Man" ("The Seltzer Man") and his uproarious collaboration with Sheldon Harnick, "The Zabar's Beguine," sung with delirious passion by Ivy Austin. To represent his two Off-Broadway musicals Eleanor Reissa gave old world warmth to "The Boarder" from The Rise and Fall of David Levinsky and "Help Is On The Way" from Yiddle With A Fiddle.

In a video tribute, Stephen Colbert quipped of his participation in the annual Bloomsday On Broadway, "This year, for the first time, I hope to understand what I'm reading." Live performers, representing Selected Shorts, included Jane Curtain, Jacques d'Amboise, Fritz Weaver, John Shea, Marian Seldes, Malachy McCourt, Leonard Nimoy, and Calvin Trillan, who describes Sheffer as, "an alternate side of the street parker who runs an arts organization on the side."

More highlights were provided by Jay Leonhart, Brian Stokes Mitchell ("Where Is The Life That Late I Led?"), KT Sullivan ("Non, je ne regrette rien") and Carmen de Lavallade ("Willie's Lady Sings The Blues.").

The admiration and love for the evening's honoree was more than apparent throughout the evening; not just from the performers but from the audience itself. As a long-time resident of the Upper West Side, I've seen the neighborhood's growth and revitalization parallel the growth of Symphony Space through the years, and Isaiah Sheffer's efforts to bring a world of culture to that corner of 95th and Broadway has certainly been a huge part of the area's character.

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