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Review: Yale Edges Out Harvard 32-31 in the Wildly Entertaining Second Annual HARVARD-YALE CANTATA at Feinstein's/54 Below 

By: Sep. 23, 2016
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The first annual HARVARD-YALE CANTATA at Feinstein's/54 Below, a musical competition modeled on the legendary boat race, was electrifying. The sold-out show directed and produced by Tom Toce (Yale '78) was one of those evenings that make you grateful and happy to live in New York among so many brilliant and passionate artists. And if you happened to attend either school, it produced a particular pride in all that is wonderful about institutions fashionable to bash in an age of reverse snobbery. (Full disclosure: I graduated from Yale in 1995.)

While the second CANTATA played to a slightly smaller crowd, the show featured songs by lyricists who have made lasting contributions to popular music in the 20th Century: Alan Lerner (H '40), Tom Lehrer (H '46 and MA '47), and John Forster (H '69). In more recent years, Cambridge and New Haven have produced Broadway composers such as Larry O'Keefe (H '91 HEATHERS, LEGALLY BLONDE) and Bobby Lopez (Y '97, BOOK OF MORMON, AVENUE Q, and songs from FROZEN), the youngest of only 12 people to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar.

The "unbiased guest judges," from Brown, Princeton, and NYU (Amanda Green, Bob Stillman, and Marcy Heisler) Toce joked, could be "counted on to dislike Harvard and Yale equally." Their collective credits, which took no less than five minutes for Toce to list, might better have been included in the program, but the trio made for an amusing, to say nothing of illustrious, peanut gallery in one of the venue's corner booths.

Under the fine musical direction of Isaac Alter (who graduated just four months ago!), Harvard's team tried to avenge their 37-26 loss to Yale last year with their "best and brightest" recent grads, in the phrase made famous by David Halberstam. While the songs in the first heat ("Big Girls Don't Cry") were not the show's strongest, one could not help but be impressed with the vocal talent.

The Yale team of the second annual CANTATA backstage at F/54.

"Candy Store" (O'Keefe and Murphy) from the musical HEATHERS, was about what you'd expect from the movie that put the term "mean girls" into general circulation. If Neil LaBute wrote songs, they'd sound like this. "Girls Suck" by Julia Meinwald (Y '05) was Yale's response to O'Keefe. Mallory Bayseck (Y'11), Kate Berman (Y '11), and Mary Bolt (Y '14) made the material sound more appealing than it actually was with their intricate, beautiful harmonies.

The second heat---"Trials (World Premieres)"---consisted of two clever, funny songs by recent grads: "I Used To Think" (Benji Goldsmith, Y '15) and "On Dating" (Cynthia Meng, H '15, Kim Onah, H '15). Goldsmith's political satire registered the singer's lost illusions, namely, the illusion that Republicans are sexy: "There's no more sexy, just sad." In this deplorable electoral season, no one---at least no one in that crowd---could possibly disagree. Sam Bolen (Y '11) has a fine tenor and he evokes John Fugelsang in this delightfully edgy song.

Meng and Onah, both outstanding sopranos, detailed with equal parts annoyance and amusement their dating experiences as accomplished young women of color. Meng's, "Stop f-ing fetishizing me!" got big laughs, as did Onah's complaints about unsurprising but still galling reactions to her from families and friends of men she dates. The lyrics are sharp and original if the subject is not, and Yale's musical director Alex Ratner (Y '15), one of the best young pianists I've heard in cabaret, is at his finest in the well-written song.

Jaclyn Huberman (H '01) truly dazzled in the "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" (Lerner and Loewe), the first song in the third heat ("Change of Pace Race"), just as she did in John Forster's popular "Codependent With You" the year before. A polished singer who infuses lyrics with a unique intelligence, Huberman impressed the judges with what Bob Stillman rightly noted was hardly the "go-to song" from CAMELOT.

The irrepressible Megan Loughran (Y '09), who also co-produced the CANTATA, rose to Huberman's seemingly impossible challenge with an innovative interpretation of "The Impossible Dream" (Mitch Leigh, Y '51, MA '52, lyrics by Joe Darion). Singing the famous song in no fewer than 10 genres---including Bossa Nova, disco, blues, doo-wop, Motown, and country---plus cockney chimney sweep, wedding toast, 911 call, and kazoo---the performance was a tour de force, confirming what her stellar rendition of Lopez's "The Pregnancy Song" in 2015 made clear: Loughran has real acting chops.

After three heats, it was time for a score check. Hedging like politicians, the judges announced that Harvard and Yale were "tied in [their] affections," but that Harvard had two points on the Bulldogs: 14.5 to 12.5. Harvard led midway through the show last year, so the Yalies in the audience didn't look too forlorn.

"Old Timers Day," the fourth heat, paired two endearing songs sung by men still in love with their wives after many decades: "Baby, You're Always Right" (Kim Oler, Y '76) and "Cecily Smith" (Michael Mitnick, H '06). Alter's piano on the second song stood out, as did the excellent phrasing of both performers, who didn't place unreasonable demands on their mature voices. Peter Lerangis (H '77), who sang in college and for a few years after that, said with charming modesty he'd written some novels. (He is, in fact, a successful and prolific writer of young adult fiction.)

The Harvard team backstage at F/54.

"Academia Nuts," the fifth heat, featured two heavyweight composers, Tom Lehrer and Bobby Lopez, and two equally substantial songs: "Bright College Days" and "I Wish I Could Go Back To Harvard" (a joke, of course; Lopez is a Yalie). Harmonies were airtight on the Lehrer hit, with Matt DaSilva (H '12) the standout among three spectacular singers, including Jojo Karlin (H '05) and Sam Perwin (H '04). Sam Bolen, Nathaniel Janis (Y '14) and Loughran (who wrote additional lyrics for the song) sang with humor and laser precision.

The sixth heat, "Round Midnight," included one of the evening's highlights with Emily Jenda (Y '10) singing "Out Here On My Own" (Michael Gore, Y' 73, with sister Lesley) like a bonafide star with multiple Grammys to her name. Joshuah Campbell (H '16) did a nice job with "Don't You Remember" by Dan Wilson (H '83) and Adele, but Jenda's performance was unbeatable.

With the "In Heat Heat," the CANTATA approached the finish line. Ten feet behind me, the two teams gathered on opposite ends of the bar to cheer their teams on. The energy and suspense far exceeded that of a Harvard or Yale football game (says this LA native raised on Big 10/Pac 10 match-ups and perplexed by the very phenomenon of Ivy League football).

One of the handsome (and very tall!) Harvard men shouted, "Bring it home, Barry!" And bring it home he did: Barry Shafrin (H '10) performed his teammate John Forster's comic masterpiece, "Entering Marion," as well as I've heard it sung. (His rendition blows away the competition on YouTube, and as with many who competed in the second annual CANTATA, one foresees great success for this talented young man.) Miles Jacoby (Y '11) sounded solid in "First of May" by Jonathan Coulton (Y '93), but that's hardly a fair fight.

When the judges announced the final score---Yale 32, Harvard 31---the bar erupted after a memorable show whose only significant glitch was technical. The video of Melissa Errico (Y '92) from her new suburban home didn't work on the first try, nor did the sound on footage of JFK accepting his LLD from Yale Law School ("I now have the best of both worlds: A Harvard education and a Yale degree"). Otherwise, the Second Annual HARVARD-YALE CANTATA was a worthy successor to the first. I look forward to the third annual showdown next fall.


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