BWW Review: BROADWAY BY THE YEAR Celebrates the 1920s with Scorching Vocal Performances, Paying Tribute to the Past with Stars of the Present
BROADWAY BY THE YEAR, the musical revue series created, written, directed, and hosted by Scott Siegel and which pays tribute to a different era of Broadway composers each program, is a stroke of brilliance. Occurring once a month, each evening is dedicated specifically to one decade of American musical theater, and features some of the most talented stars currently working in American musical theater.
The series' most recent installment (and the first of 2017) on February 27 at its usual home, The Town Hall, paid tribute to the 1920s. The decade, which inducted into the theatrical cannon the likes of George and Ira Gershwin and Richard Rodgers, brims with melodically-rich scores including songs of yearning and joviality. The tunes selected for the evening certainly felt of their era; however, put into the hands of such skilled performers as Carolee Carmello, Beth Malone, and Robert Cuccioli (to name a few), they could be heard with fresh and non-cynical ears.
Consisting of a full two acts, with more than 20 songs, the highlights of the evening are too plentiful to enumerate in full (a wonderful problem to run into). However, a few moments must be illuminated, not the least of which was Malone's performance of "My Man" from 1921's ZIEGFIELD FOLLIES. Malone, recently Tony-nominated for her performance in FUN HOME, has a voice that's at once timeless and modern, possessive of a strong belt but also jazz-like in its smoothness. Her take on this simplistic standard---made famous by one Fanny Brice, mind you---revitalized what is at its core a twinkling love song.
Also instilling a selection with jazzier overtones was Jill Paice, most recently seen in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" from BLACKBIRDS OF 1928 (bowing on Broadway in, yes, 1928). The tune, which has to date been performed by the likes of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, is rife with opportunities for artists to individualize with quirks. Paice, wisely, opted for a classic take on the bouncy number, getting the room particularly energized with its final 45 seconds of blow-the-roof-off belting.
The iron-lunged William Michals delivered the most consummately impressive songs of the evening, performed "unplugged" (meaning without accompaniment nor a microphone), were versions of "Song of the Vagabonds" from THE VAGABOND KING and THE DESERT SONG's "One Alone." If you've never had the opportunity to hear a human being fill a concert hall with nothing but the fervor of their own vocal chords, it is a synesthetic experience which cannot easily be recollected with words. But suffice to say, Michals certainly caused a few jaws to drop.
The aforementioned Carmello, thrice-Tony-nominated and seen on Broadway in last season's TUCK EVERLASTING, was at her most sensational on the oft-performed "Someone to Watch Over Me." The tune, from 1926's OH, KAY!, is so frequently performed, in fact, that many in the room (myself included) were not even aware that its origins were in theater. That is, of course, a testament to the song's enduring ability to stand alone as a piece of music, disconnected from a storyline. Carmello, wearing a cascading white gown, serviced the song as it was meant to be heard, without frills and with unrelenting vocal strength.
The song actually exemplified remarks made by Siegel earlier in the evening. Discussing the songs that would be heard throughout the show, he said most in attendance would recognize the songs, though be unfamiliar with the shows from which they came. Conversely, speaking to the upcoming BROADWAY BY THE YEAR performances which will highlight composers of the 21st century, audiences will have likely heard of the shows but be unfamiliar with the music.
The Act One closer certainly proved Siegel's hunch. Danny Gardner, most recently in the Broadway revival of the tap-heavy DAMES AT SEA, performed the Gershwin classic "S'Wonderful," a well-known tune written for a far less infamous 1927 musical, FUNNY FACE. With his hammy, throwback stage demeanor, and good looks, Gardner's performance was the most evocative of the actual era from which the selections came from, a sentiment enhanced by his accompaniment of three Rockette dancers, whose kick-line elicited some of the evening's loudest cheers.
In addition to those dancers, Mindy Moeller, Danelle Morgan, and Katie Walker, the concert's singers were accompanied by wonderful musicians Ross Patterson (music director, piano), Tom Hubbard (bass), and Eric Halvorson (drums).
The concert's final solo performance came courtesy of the inimitable Mary Testa, with Broadway credits to her name including WICKED, CHICAGO, and GUYS AND DOLLS. Testa has become a stalwart of New York Theater, and it felt only appropriate that she bring the house down at the evening's end. Singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man," another very well-known song from SHOW BOAT, Testa brought her signature brass to the slow-building number, causing the crowd to whoop and holler with gusto as she reached its final crescendo.
The actual closing song of the night, though, was an all-company take on another Gershwin cut: the catchy "Fascinating Rhythm," from 1924's LADY BE GOOD. With each performer cozying up to one another, it was actually a quite appropriate end to a show which celebrated theater of yesteryear. Feel-good and ever-slightly corny, it sent its audience back into the world with a smile on its face and a tune stuck in its head.
The next BROADWAY BY THE YEAR will celebrate musicals of the 1940s, and will take place on March 27, 2017, 8PM, at Town Hall. For tickets and information, visit ticketmaster.com.
Casey Mink is BroadwayWorld's Chief New York Cabaret Critic and is an entertainment journalist in New York City, focusing on the performing arts. Follow her on Twitter @Casey_Mink.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter-Keddy