BWW Reviews: MARQUEE FIVE Earns An A-Plus With Beautiful 'Broadway By the Letter' Harmonies at 54 Below

By: Oct. 23, 2013
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Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

It was on a Sunday night in the summer of 1975 when I first discovered The Manhattan Transfer. My parents were in the den watching a new CBS-TV variety show in The Ed Sullivan Show's old 8pm time slot, when I suddenly heard some delicious four-part harmonies wafting into my bedroom. The next day The Manhattan Transfer's eponymous-titled first album was a new part of my collection. Listening to Janis Siegel, Laurel Masse (later replaced by Cheryl Bentyne), Tim Hauser, and Alan Paul re-invent songs from various eras such as "Tuxedo Junction," "Operator," "Gloria," and "That Cat is High," was pure heaven.

I never thought I'd feel that kind of revelation about a singing group again, but two years ago I heard the relatively new Marquee Five perform a show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre called "8-Track Throwback," which was a five part harmony homage to the music of the 1960s and '70s. They hadn't gotten even halfway through their set when I realized that in Marquee Five I'd heard my Manhattan Transfer for the new millennium. Marquee Five's style is less jazzy and more pop than the Transfer, and their sound is infused with the tones of a co-ed barbershop quintet, Broadway belting, and holiday season caroling (the group's members have also sung for years with the New York/New Jersey chapter of the Definitely Dickens Carolers). And, like the Transfer, they can handle style of song with flair and ease.

Marquee Five's new show last Saturday night at 54 Below did nothing to push me off their bandwagon. In Broadway By the Letter: Act One (a set of songs representing the first half of the alphabet), this fabulous five-some once again delivered delightful harmonies on a variety of song styles, standout individual performances, and intricate yet accessible vocal arrangements from group member and Musical Director Adam West Hemming. Even when one of the group's regular singers--Hemming, Julie Reyburn, Sierra Rein, Vanessa Parvin, and Mick Bleyer--leaves for an acting gig, Marquee Five finds more than able substitutes, as when Lynsey Buckelew stood in for Rein this past summer. For this show, bass Christopher Whipple filled in for Bleyer and the team didn't miss a beat. (Photo above, left to right: Whipple, Reyburn, Rein, Parvin, Hemming.)

Opening with the fun and hot "All That Jazz" from Chicago, Marquee Five painted the room with whoopee vocals and never let up. They then cleverly covered the letter B with Bombshell, the faux Marilyn Monroe musical from the late, lamented TV show, Smash, and beautiful brunette Sierra Rein--voluptuous in both voice and body--zeroed in on the Mark Shaiman/Scott Wittman song "They Just Keep Moving the Line," and belted it out of the park like Joe DiMaggio would a baseball in his prime. One of the show's highlights came next, as the group brought that caroling sound to an amazingly ambitious vocalization of Richard Rodgers' "Carousel Waltz," the opening number of the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel. Just the thought of how long they must have rehearsed the number was exhausting. With Mark Janas' keen classical sensibility at the piano, the group had the ideal person at the keyboard, while Director Lennie Watts cleverly incorporated some choreography, having the group members bounce up and down carousel-like during the song. It was simply mesmerizing.

There were harmonic highlights aplenty to come. In a section called "Finnspiration," celebrating the work of composer William Finn, Whipple was wistful and wonderful on "I'd Rather Be Sailing" (from the show In Trousers), the lovely Reyburn was heartfelt on "When the Earth Stopped Turning" (from Elegies), and the currently pregnant and glowing Parvin was powerful on "The I Love You Song" (from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee). The suite of songs culminated in a terrific mash up arrangement of all three. Hemming and Whipple produced a fun take on "Bosom Buddies" from Mame during a Jerry Herman section, which was followed by a cute mash up ending on a medley of "Try to Remember" from The Fantastics and "The Girl That I Marry" from Annie Get Your Gun. MAC Award winner Reyburn then positively killed it on a jazzy version of "The Song Is You," from the 1932 Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical Music In The Air. After a rousing group vocal on their finale, Roger Miller's "Muddy Water" from Big River, Marquee Five went one better for their encore, which they framed as a "preview" for Broadway By The Letter: Act Two. You couldn't even hear the sound of a wine class clinking or a piece of silverware touching a plate as the group cooed Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday" from Sunday In the Park With George. (See YouTube video, above.) If you closed your eyes and listened closely to the tight and angelic harmonies, you could probably see the green purple yellow red grass and the cool blue triangular water. Just people hearing some beautiful singers and sounds in a Manhattan island nightclub on an ordinary Saturday night. -END-