BWW Review: Singers Capture THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY at Feinstein's/ 54 Below
The dreaded "F"-word gets uttered when talking about Broadway musicals. I mean, of course, that shudder-inducing four-letter word....."flop." Yes, despite good intentions and often plenty of good material and good talent, a show that seemed so promising can't draw an audience, gets lousy reviews, is plagued with "artistic differences," runs out of money, runs out of steam, and runs out of luck, and thus doesn't run for very long. Some with a sadistic or snarky bent delight in picking over their bones and mocking them, others are intrigued to try to figure out what went wrong, but the optimist who sees the glass half full, or at least retaining a couple of drops of tasty wine to savor, will drink in what's best. Crying "What were they thinking???" you can argue forever about why a show itself may have withered and died, but it's inarguable that there are excellent individual songs in many musicals that didn't last long. At the famed Joe Allen restaurant in Manhattan's theatre district, the walls are covered with framed posters of musicals that died early deaths. If you worked there or ate there often, the frequent exposure to the wall of show posters would likely pique your curiosity and keep them on your radar, and...."Oh, if these walls could sing!" If, like many a New Yorker restaurant employee, you are also a performer, well, then, why not put down the tray and raise your voice and be part of a night of music from the misses? And so an evening's theme was hatched and the waiters at Feinstein's/ 54 Below saw their venue taken over by another dining establishment's staff and February 4 brought THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY: A Joe Allen TRIBUTE.
Eager, competent company members amply demonstrated their wares and polish. (I don't mean bringing shiny silverware from their place of employment.) "We don't just carry meatloaf!" remarked the gregarious host/producer/director/conceiver, Nick Flatto. He also offered up an opening number with self-penned special lyrics, slyly hijacking Stephen Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch" toast to comment on certain types of annoying, demanding diners. (Talk about biting that hand that feeds you---and/or that you feed!) Later we got 100% Sondheim with "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along, a terrific score from a show that didn't roll along for very long when first rolled out in the 1980s, but has been produced many times and spawned a few cast albums and, hey, it's Sondheim, so it's hardly an unknown piece in or out of context. Other items were less familiar, such as the one from Marilyn: An American Fable, the bio-musical about Miss Monroe; it, "You Are So Beyond," delivered with admirable conviction and investment.
While many choices were "big" songs done big, it was a refreshing reminder to have demonstrated how effective and emotionally involving a low-key story-song can be when communicated with care ("Mrs. Remington" from The Story of My Life). While the posters may remain firmly on Joe Allen's walls and in their frames, some songs were presented quite differently than they were framed in their plots and characterizations: For example, what had been Chita Rivera's reprised Rose's determined fuming and catharsis in the sequel to Bye Bye Birdie was given to a man and done as a more smug, more carefree romp and the female solo "Meadowlark" was shared by three men in a split focus that worked better for bravura showmanship than following the line of the narrative. (This lengthy Stephen Schwartz-written saga is from The Baker's Wife, which was incorrectly described from the stage as having begun as a London production that didn't get done stateside back in the day -- when in fact it closed on the road to Broadway after several months in 1976, but got an album of much of the score, and the British mounting came 13 years later; the projection on the screen was the London poster/ second cast album cover).
The spoken parts would have been more fruitfully dedicated to more perspective and anecdotes beyond a skimming of history. Instead, much time was taken up by our host saying how great everybody was, encouraging even more cheers and lengthier vociferous applause from the already enthused audience going wild. "I know every single person here," the host remarked, at least a bit of exaggeration (I couldn't be the only stranger in the very full room, could I?), but it would help explain the immense ovations that felt like heroes' welcomes.
With a set list of only eleven samples from the large number of possible short-lived productions, it seemed a waste of a slot to present two things from the same musical. It is a notorious one, however, with its own cult, referenced as part of the title of Ken Mandelbaum's fascinatingly fact-filled book about musicals that didn't last long at all: "Not Since 'Carrie': Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops." This four-decade survey is now three decades old and the non-hits kept coming, like this nightclub set's included The Pirate Queen. From that Queen to that [Stephen] King-derived property (Carrie), there's many a score to explore for a royally good time. Wanna keep 'em comin'?
For the other side of the hit-or-miss coin, musical theatre fans will want to check out Feinstein's/ 54 Below's ongoing series with the self-explanatory title BROADWAY'S GREATEST HITS --- each night is different, and the upcoming dates are February 29 and March 21.
(See www.54below.com for full venue schedule and info.)