BWW Review: WITH YOU I LIKE, LYRICS & LYRICISTS EMBRACES JERRY HERMAN at 92Y (and an earlier side order of Irving Berlin)
"I feel the room swaying,/ While the band's playing/ One of your old favorite songs from way back when...." In 92Y's salute to Jerry Herman, concluding with matinee and evening shows on Monday (February 24), the lilting music so warmly received made it feel like the room was swaying while the band was playing many of my old favorite songs from way back whenever. The very recent loss of the iconic songwriter at age 88 made it all both bittersweet and more appreciated /more celebrated. A film clip of the man himself singing and playing his "I'll Be Here Tomorrow" from The Grand Tour especially touched the heart with an altered perspective. Also moving because of a real Herman connection were comments by conductor/pianist Andy Einhorn whose baton commanded the recent Broadway hit revival of Hello, Dolly! and Cady Huffman, performer in the concert and its director, who made her own Broadway debut in La Cage Aux Folles. What the composer-lyricist had to say through his work and own values quite clearly has profoundly affected them. YOU I LIKE (named for another included number from the under-rated Grand Tour score) entertained, informed, and honored its subject and his output.
The festivities began with a solid, juicy, classy overture by the six-man band , moving briskly through many memory-prompting songs, not all of which were to be sung in the concert. The singers, all with Broadway and regional credits, did fine work throughout, although not everything could be said to be an ideal fit. But there were highlights aplenty when the singers seemed most invested, most comfortable, and most connected. Highlights included: Miss Huffman's comical take-back of the male chauvinist myopia of "It Takes a Woman" from Hello, Dolly!; Bryonha Marie Parham's marvelously yearning "Love, Look in My Window" (written for the same show when Ethel Merman was to be its star); Ryan Vona's exquisitely pretty and hushed "Marianne" from The Grand Tour (with his own guitar accompaniment); Andrea Ross's rapturous, ingenue-perfect "I've Never Said I Love You" from Dear World"; and rich-voiced Quentin Earl Darrington's thoughtful "If He Walked Into My Life" (introduced as something that that could be the 20/20 hindsight and regrets of any parental figure, not the exclusive province of females). Those are just some of the knockouts.
These talented folks, of course, had some rather indelible theatrical memories made by icons to "compete" with and it would be risky to totally reinvent something in this kind of setting with its goals. The classic bitchy LOL "Bosom Buddies" from the score of Mame seemed tepid with women who come across as wholesome and warm and too young, and assigning a female to sing "With Anne on My Arm" with another gal seemed a distracting gender flip for this number from La Cage, as if someone forgot the homosexual pair in the story is two men, not two women. (If you're going to do this, why not use the other --male-sung---lyric that was heard as "With You on My Arm"? ) A couple of other things were pleasant enough, but didn't reach their full potential of pow or joy. The idea of having Herman's "first person" quotes read by the singers felt too forced, like students trying too hard to be pithy. These were better realized by host Einhorn who has a flair for addressing the listeners as fellow admirers of the writer and a natural narrative style. His skills at arranging and orchestrating are masterful and deepen what is too often dismissed as "merely" tuneful and perky by the myopic. He and the band and singers make that a myth and make YOU I LIKE more than just likeable and diverting. It's endearing and enriching.
Next in the season of Lyrics and Lyricists is a Gershwin spotlight that comes as spring begins: March 21, 22, 23.
Great American Songbook giants are saluted in less giant ways at the Y than the Jerry Herman hug. The Lyrics and Lyricists program mentioned that Herman was inspired to be a musical theater man when his parents too him to see the show with a classic Irving Berlin score: Annie Get Your Gun. And its that writer whose life and work was respectfully surveyed in a classroom noontime appearance by biographer James Kaplan. His recently published book, "Irving Berlin: New York Genius," was (of course) the basis for his lecture.
Including one by his daughter, Berlin bios are nothing new, as befits one of the most famed (and earliest) giants of the musical theatre and popular song. But some of the oft-told tales and tidbits seemed new to some in the audience who gasped or chuckled in surprise as Mr. Kaplan trotted out facts, accomplishments, amusing song titles or lyric quotes, and asked questions to which even some casual music buffs would likely know. Beginning with a key year in Berlin's life, he paved the way for perspective, and the took us back to the arrival of the future legend as an immigrant from Russia, summarizing his life in bullet points, stopping frequently to play snippets of vintage recordings and show slides. We lingered in the early years and early songs, some novelties that were signs of their oh-s-different times. He made a point of putting things in context of the realities of the period--- ethnic milieu, societal attitudes, musical trends, the Depression, the pressures and pleasures of success, the World Wars, and Berlin's religious roots (the book is part of a "Jewish Lives" series).
While well prepared and plentifully illustrated (visually and musically), the mood was on the serious side and the energy subdued, even while fondly mentioning Berlin's goofiest songs. Newbies who want to be spoon-fed may have been satisfied and diverted to be handed an Intro To Irving 101, and I hope it brought belated appreciators who'd only had a nodding familiarity with anything beyond the best known Berlin hits. So hopefully that audience happily paid the not-so-tiny ticket fee for the hour of what was basically an expanded version of the kind of free author appearance one sometimes gets at a bookstore or library and a diligent D.I.Y. dive on YouTube through the same audio recordings available there in full-length. Those understandably tempted by this appetizer would likely enjoy spending some more bucks on Berlin bliss by buying any of the several lengthy recordings of the early-period, lesser-known songs produced by Chip Deffaa or, naturally, getting the Kaplan book itself to get what's beyond the live Cliff Notes.
92Y is at 1395 Lexington Avenue on the corner of East 92nd Street. See the venue website. www.92y.org