Review - New Mondays at 54 Below

When Phil Geoffrey Bond was named Programming Director at 54 Below, it became a given that the theatre district's spanking new nightlife venue would include on its schedule Broadway-centric evenings geared for the knowledgeable musical theatre fan who appreciates both past glories and upcoming works in progress. The producer/host of the Laurie Beechman Theatre's popular Sondheim Unplugged series now makes a significant debut in the same capacities with New Mondays, dedicated to giving audiences a sampling of fresh material from accomplished theatre composers and lyricists.

Closing night of the series' quintet of performances was my first visit to 54 Below (beautiful sightlines and sound, attractive décor, reasonable prices and charming service) and the packed house went nuts for the evening's headliner, Maury Yeston. After teasing the audience with snippets of "There She Is," "Unusual Way," "Love Can't Happen" and "A Call From The Vatican," he noted to the crowd that Bond had ask him to play some of his lesser-known work, thus launching the composer/lyricist into a madcap rendition of Nine's "The Germans at the Spa," where he narrated the action from the piano and sang all the parts.

Recalling an assignment he gave to his Yale students, Yeston sang his own clever lyrics designed to help them memorize Louis Armstrong's cornet solo for his 1926 recording of "Big Butter and Egg Man." Johnny Rodgers took over the stage briefly to recreate his twangy recording of "Danglin'," a song Yeston jokes that people didn't believe he wrote because it's so different from his other work.

But the main focus of the evening was to be on new works, so next came a pair from Club Moscow, an upcoming musical about post-Soviet Russia. Jill Abromowitz (who the composer/lyricist calls, "a Tony Award waiting to happen.") sang the comic "Malvina's Song, where a character relishes her own bitchiness, and Mara Davi steamed up the place with "Tell Me," where a seductress makes an unusual request. Ending the segment was Rebecca Luker, sounding lovely, of course, with the lullaby from In The Beginning, "New Words."

Preceding Yeston were three talented composer/lyricists who have yet to see their Broadway dreams realized, but have still gathered a following among theatre fans and have been honored will well-respected industry awards.

Joe Iconis is up there with the most famous of musical theatre's unknown writers, having gathered up a regular troupe of performers he calls "The Family." Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams, one of the more familiar family faces and a terrific interpreter of the composer/lyricist's "everyday guy" characters, was on hand to perform "Helen," which surprisingly goes from being a one-joke lyric about a guy discovering that a girl he went to high school with is now a porn star, to an interesting reflection on what the people you knew as a kid would think of the way you've turned out. A newer song, "Flesh and Bone," had Williams playing a robot battling his body image insecurities. Iconis himself, appropriately, sang his amusing "The Song," where a songwriting tells of a woman who, after their breakup, insists he doesn't write a song about her.

A new Iconis song ranks as one of the best of his I've ever heard. "The Actress," the story of a woman whose originality was stifling her career until she decided to just start doing what everybody else tries to do, is a perfectly satirical piece criticizing a culture that encourages cookie-cutter vocal gymnasts to suffocate music and lyrics with their American Idol stylings. Katrina Rose Dideriksen performed with aggressive high belting, tender pathos and impish glee.

Katie Thompson lovingly performed Adam Gwon's intensely romantic "One Little Word" and his sweet lullaby, "Think of the Moon." There was fine work by Whiney Bashor with the endearing "Favorite Places" and "Uncharted Territory" and Carey Anderson in the very cute "Little Mysteries" from The Boy Detective Fails.

Brett Kristofferson's set included "Joey Runs," sung by Jonathan Whitton, a meditation on finding serenity through running, "Micki, Go," sung by Scoot Koonce, a heartbreaking lyric about ending a relationship for a partner's own good, and the very funny "Lizzie Borden Rag," belted with comical joy by Kathy Searle. Another heartbreaker, the MAC Award winning "Things That Haunt Me," was elegantly turned by Angela Schultz.

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