BWW Review: TO LIFE! CELEBRATING SHELDON HARNICK at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
Heigh-Ho Friends & "Family"! Bobby Patrick your RAINBOW Reviewer here. Putting the silent T in CABARET to bring you all the T.
Well queens and queeneses, this week the American Songbook Association gave a special salute to a man that has contributed so much to the aforementioned American Songbook that we just had to go and hear all the pretty music. Master Lyricist, Sheldon Harnick (95 this past April) has a seven-decade career that includes writing hit songs, hit reviews, and hit Broadway musicals. But, if he had written nothing else in his long life, he wrote the lyrics for Fiddler On The Roof and THAT, my dearlings, is something indeed. You can check the broadway history books, but Fiddler was the first real "Block Buster" musical, running for 8 years and winning 9 competitive Tony Awards including one for Harnick - his second (name his first!). From Chicago originally, Harnick came to NYC with his Bachelor of Music from North Western and began contributing songs to Off-Broadway and Nightclub reviews. When his bestie Mrs. Garrett (sorry we mean Charlotte Rae) played him the cast album of Finnian's Rainbow (Tony's first Best Musical) Mr. Harnick's fate was sealed. He had to write for the Broadway stage. And this concludes our trip through his Wikipedia page. Now allow us to QUEEN OUT over the evening's entertainment.
Bobby's not going to lie me dears, we felt our little rainbow crest fall slightly when we sat down in the Pershing Square Theatre named for Laura Linney's dad to find a program insert indicating that Rebecca Luker AND Laura Benanti, originally billed, would not be appearing this evening. But then, as we looked down the list and saw the names of Broadway staples like Liz Callaway, Brad Oscar, and cabaret royalty Jeff Harnar & Alex Rybeck, we knew that the entertainment would be solid. Solid, as it turned out, was an understatement. Starting with a tuneful instrumental arrangement of TO LIFE from Fiddler as a quick overture played by Eugene Gwozdz on piano (and who's name is line 7 on the eye test chart), Tim Hubbard on bass, Danny Bacher on one of those adorable soprano saxophones, and Mark McLean on drum's we moved quickly on to our first entertainer of the evening: a young woman we had never seen before, Kissy Simmons, who sang the hilarious GORGEOUS from the Passionella section of The Apple Tree. Mixing powerful belt with a rich upper range, Ms. Simmons gave the song her all and was the starting pistol ((BANG)) for the night. Klea Blackhurst then took the reins as our host and with her quick wit, off the cuff comedy, and braying voice she made us all feel this Benefit would not go the way of so many others that drop down the drain of dull drollery and tedious tribute speeches. Oh, there were speeches to come, we all knew that, but in the hands of our generation's Ethel Merman (no really... She's actually played The Merm) we knew we'd be rescued from drowning in the doldrums. Blackhurst then wowed the audience belting out BOSTON BEGUINE from Harnick's first-ever trip to Broadway: New Faces of 1952. Though at one point La Blackhurst went up on her words, she handled it with aplomb, simply telling Gwozdz to start a verse over and telling the audience to pretend they were getting new information at this point. The gaffe put us all on Klea's side and she went on to knock it out of the park, getting a kiss on the hand from Harnick when she stepped downstage to him in acknowledgment.
As stated above, yes, there were speeches, including a nifty one at the end from Mr. Harnick himself, but our little rainbow heart was particularly moved by ASA Education Director Carolyn Montgomery, who came 3rd on the bill to let us know that publishing Cabaret Scenes magazine is NOT the only function of the organization. Their major contribution to the community of New York City is bringing music education to underserved schools with no arts education at all, and teaching the students about music for free. She told the story of an East Harlem 6th grader who, in conversation, asked Montgomery if she were a parent. Not used to personal questions from students on these trips to share music education, she responded that she was a mom with a son who liked performing, who had just been accepted to Laguardia, the performing arts Highschool. Upon hearing this the student responded, "Oh I would give anything to go there." Wanting to be encouraging Montgomery said, "Well, you're in the 6th grade. When you get to the 8th grade you go right ahead and you audition." After a moment of a quizzical look, the student said, "There's no music here." With a third of that student's classmates coming to school from homeless shelters and remembering all the great talent that came from impoverished conditions in Harlem, it seems even more disconcerting that there isn't even rudimentary music training and appreciation going on in our public schools. Montgomery went on to tell us how the ASA is trying to level that playing field. Read Executive Director Marilyn Lester's interview for Broadwayworld HERE, and then consider supporting the ASA in these education efforts.
Truly all the numbers that followed throughout the evening were winners performed by winners, and the whole night gave us gems from Mr. Harnick's long career including Alexandra Silber singing DEAR LITTLE SEWING MACHINE, a song for Tevye's eldest Tzietel that was cut out of town, Judy Kuhn thrillingly encoring VANILLA ICE CREAM from She Loves Me, the 1963 Bock and Harnick show in which she starred for the 90's revival, and venerable Broadway Queen Ed Dixon wonderfully singing DRAGONS from a latter-day (2003) Harnick musical called, simply enough, Dragons, offering a taste of music composed by Sheldon Harnick as well as words.
Highlights from the cabaret world were the much loved Sydney Myer, whose befuddled song of Adam's awakening in the garden from The Apple Tree delighted one and all, and the fantastic and ever-youthful Jeff Harnar who, with Alex Rybeck performed a medley of POLITICS AND POKER mashed up with LITTLE TIN BOX (both from Fiorello), with Harnar taking on a variety of characters proving he's not just a pretty face that can sing. He's also a pretty terrific actor.
All in all this 2nd annual American Songbook Association Benefit proves that this event is one to watch for from now on and to make it a part of your theatrical outings, as well as demonstrating that this organization has much to offer and everyone should consider supporting with ticket purchases and tax-deductible donations.
To learn more about The American Songbook Association and make a donation visit their Website
The Potential for this fundraiser to become the EVENT OF THE SEASON is quite high and we give our evening with the ASA...
4 out of 5 Rainbows.