City Center's Encores! Bash
Reunions provided the highlights of this year's City Center Encores! Bash, as three memorable duets in the Nov. 21-22 concerts featured performers who have costarred as sweethearts.
In a clever bit of stuntcasting, Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessawho won hearts and Tonys as a married couple in Hairsprayperformed the former-lovers duet "I Remember It Well," from Gigi. They milked it for all the chuckles and nostalgia it was worth, with Fierstein raising and lowering the pitch of his voice for different lyrics and giving a perfectly timed knowing nod to the audience when he sang "How strong you were, so young and gay."
Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager demonstrated once again why they deserved the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers roles in the ill-fated Never Gonna Dance, with their pairing on "You're a Builder-Upper" from Life Begins at 8:40, a 1934 show by Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg. It was as delightful a display of old-fashioned, romantic theater dance as you'll find this side of the 1960s. And it took dancers as sure-footed and comfortable with each other as Racey and Lemenager to make the most of their limited spacethe orchestra was on stage, so Racey and Lemenager danced not only on the open area downstage but between rows of musicians and on top of the piano (at which point conductor Rob Fisher came off his podium to duet with Chris Fenwick on the piano).
There was also a charming softshoe by longtime faves David Garrison and Karen Ziemba, who had played husband and wife in the 1996 off-Broadway revival of I Do! I Do! At the Encores! Bash, they hoofed to "I Still Get Jealous," from the Jule Styne-Sammy Cahn musical High Button Shoes, with Jerome Robbins' choreography re-created by Cynthia Onrubia. Ziemba also mutely assisted (by holding up illustrations) a German-accented Garrison in a funny number by Dorothy Fields and Morton Gould, "A Cow and a Plough and a Frau."
Other standouts in the Encores! concert were Sara Gettelfinger and Anne Hathaway. Gettelfinger, who's headed to Broadway next year in the Dirty Rotten Scoundrels musical, roused the audienceafter a slow start to the concertwith Seesaw's "Welcome to the Holiday Inn." Accompanied by a three-man chorus, she looked, sang and moved like a knockout. Another lovely young brunette, Hathaway, ran an entire play's gamut of emotions in "It's a Perfect Relationship" (from Bells Are Ringing) and showed great range by following that comedic crowd-pleaser with a torch song, "I Wonder What Became of Me" from St. Louis Woman. Already a movie star (The Princess Diaries), Hathaway undoubtedly left many in the Encores! audience hoping she'll turn her attention to musical theater.
This year's Encores! Bash feted the 100th birthdays of Harold Arlen, Marc Blitzstein, Dorothy Fields, Frederick Loewe and Jule Styne. All the music on the program came from those five legendary songwriters (who were all born between June 1904 and December 1905), commencing with Styne's Funny Girl overture. Then, in a rather stilted, unimaginative opening, five cast members paraded out and took turns announcing a composer's name and date and place of birth and singing a sample snippet by that composer. After giving us Dorothy Fields' vitals, they turned the stage over to Ziemba and Malcolm Gets for "A Fine Romance"a showcase for these pros' musical comedy talents as well as Fields' witty, suggestive lyrics.
The Encores! Bash might have benefited from a host or narrator. In a note buried in the program, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel observes that Arlen's early experience writing for Cotton Club revues accounted for the blues influence in his most revered songs ("The Man That Got Away," "Stormy Weather"); that Blitzstein's commitment to socially conscious works may have cost him commercial success; that Fields "looked sexand the war between the sexessquare in the eye" as no male lyricist did; and that Styne "knew what a trumpet was for." But this appreciation of the songwriters' unique gifts eluded concertgoers who don't read programs thoroughly. Viertel also notes that Fields and Arlen "created more material for African-American performers" than any other white composers; yet there were just two black performers in the concert, one of whom (Bernard Dotson) had only small ensemble parts. Leslie Uggamsprobably the most famous performer in the Encores! Bash castsang "My Own Morning," which she had originated in her Tony-winning role in 1967's Hallelujah, Baby!, and "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe," which Arlen wrote for the film version of the all-black Cabin in the Sky.
In keeping with Encores!'s mission "to shy away from the obvious," as Viertel put it in his program note, the concert avoided most of the composers' best-known work. (The only selection from My Fair Lady was the overture, played in crisp, stirring fashion to open Act 2.) Here again, a narrator could have offered some background on the forgotten shows featured in the concertsuch as Arms and the Girl, cowritten by Fields, and Hooray for What!, another Arlen-Harburg collaborationas well as on Blitzstein's non-theater works that were featured, like "The Airborne Symphony," a cantata for male voices that was commissioned by the Air Force.
The ballad solos, while sung well, dragged down the concert a bit because the performers just stood at the mike for them and because several were penned by Blitzstein, whose music is more challenging for listeners than the relentlessly hummable oeuvres of Fields, Arlen and the others. But Blitzstein fans and those who wish to hear more of the musical theater's neglected scores were treated to solid performances by the likes of Gets, Rebecca Luker (who each did a song from Blitzstein's Juno) and Victoria Clark (who sang from his Cradle Will Rock).
Christine Ebersole, who received the first pre-performance ovation of the evening, sang a humorous Blitzstein piece, "A Modest Maid" from The Littlest Revue, that pattered about lechery and butchery and bitchery. Famous tunes on the bill included "If Ever I Would Leave You," sung by Brent Barrett (though he was King Arthur in Camelot last year at Paper Mill); "They Call the Wind Maria," done as a men's chorus led by Barrett and Burke Moses; and "On the Sunny Side of the Street," performed by Kate Baldwin, Clark, Dotson and Tony Yazbeck.
For the Act 1 finale, Debbie Gravittewhose red gown sparkled on a stage of mostly black dressesoffered a rendition of "Don't Rain on My Parade" that was bouncier and less intense than Barbra Streisand's signature delivery. You could sense the audience rooting for her to pull it off (which she did), a feeling also palpable when Ebersole concluded the concert with "Everything's Coming Up Roses." This display of enthusiasm and audience-performer rapport was a fitting tribute to the songwriters' indelible contribution to American culture.