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Review: Broadway Unplugged

The most eagerly anticipated segments in each Broadway By The Year edition are the moments in which the singers, the best in both the Broadway and cabaret worlds and handpicked by producer and creator Scott Siegel, perform classic Broadway tunes unamplified. To the joy of every lover of pure musical theatre, Siegel took these favorite moments and made an entire evening of them, gathering a cast of Broadway luminaries that would make any producer's (or theatre afficionado's) knees weak. Linking songs together with excerpts from various documents denouncing amplification, last week's Broadway Unplugged concert joyously celebrated the beauty of the natural human voice.

Physically unrestrained by pre-set microphones or encumbered by hand-held ones, the cast was able to move all about the stage, offering much more freedom of interpretation than would otherwise have been able. With the unamplified (and larger than normal) Ross Patterson Little Big Band playing upstage, they filled the Town Hall with raw, unaffected, and unassisted talent.

Nancy Anderson, one of the most versatile singers and actresses in the industry, proved that she can meet the demands of operetta as well as brassy belting, performed "Romance" in a lovely soprano. Avenue Q's Ann Harada, who is seven months pregnant and must have had backup from the baby, blew the roof off the Town Hall with "There Won't Be Trumpets" from Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle. Barbara Walsh, stepping in at the last minute for Julia Murney, sang a heartbreaking "Holding to the Ground" from Falsettos, proving that a small, intimate song from a small, intimate musical does not need a microphone to fill an enormous theatre. Alice Ripley, all dolled up like Marilyn, also emphasized that point with her lovely rendition of "Serenity" from The Triumph of Love, a recent musical also written to be amplified. This concert, as Siegel pointed out, may well have been the first time that these songs were heard unamplified. Rising cabaret star Ludmilla Ilieva sang a lovely and gentle "Dancing in the Dark" from The Bandwagon, and Christine Andreas performed the haunting "My Ship" from Lady in the Dark with great intensity. Mary Testa, one of Broadway's funniest comediennes and brightest belters, displayed her talents for both with the sassy "Hard Hearted Hannah" from Innocent Eyes. Alix Korey, for the evening's finale, proved that she must someday play Mama Rose with her passionate and surprisingly chilling rendition of "Everything's Coming Up Roses" from Gypsy.

Marc Kudisch, who has become a standard at the Broadway By The Year events (and even directed last season's final edition), performed the adorable "My Fortune Is My Face" from Fade Out-Fade In, mugging shamelessly and milking the moment for everything it was worth. He returned to open the second half of he evening with the "Song of the Vagabonds" from The Vagabond King. Chuck Cooper offered a smooth and sexy rendition of Eubie Blake's "Low Down Blues," a rag tune that was penned in the 1920's, but did not reach Broadway until the age of microphones in the 1970's. Michael Cerveris, nursing a bad leg, sang a haunting "Finishing The Hat" from Sunday in the Park With George, Norm Lewis matched his intensity with a stunning "Make Them Hear You" from Ragtime, and Darius de Haas belted out a powerful "I Am Changing" from Dreamgirls. While all three of these songs were written in the age of microphones, their strength was not diminished by the lack of amplification, and one can only hope that a daring producer will have the nerve to produce these excellent musicals not as they were written to be heard, but as we now know they could be.

Some songs fared less well, unfortunately, such as Euan Morton's rendition of "Why, God, Why?" from Miss Saigon. While other theatrical songs written during the age of microphones work just fine without them, Boublil and Schoenberg's quasi-rock score was meant to be big and loud, and the song sounded weak without amplification. Stephanie J. Block was disappointingly overblown in the concert's opening number, the classic "Don't Rain on My Parade," turning the exciting number into a screamfest. Cady Huffman did not do any service to the Cole Porter standard "Anything Goes" with her shouted, rather than sung, rendition. While performing without a microphone's assistance must be difficult after one has grown accustomed to same, sacrificing style for volume does not contribute anything to a song.

But these were merely three misses out of an entire evening of hits. The power of the voices onstage and the enthusiasm of the sold-out audience should not only be incentive for a second edition of this wonderful concert, but for producers to present more musicals sung naturally. The effect is magnificent, and the aesthetic rewards immeasurable.

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