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BWW Review: Six Performers ACCENTUATE THE POSITIVE in A Salute to Iconic Lyricist Johnny Mercer

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Accentuating the positive in recent Johnny Mercer songbook
revue were (l to r): Stephen Belida, Carey Van Driest, Madison Stratton,
Tom Hafner, Lynne Halliday, and Lou Steele.

Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) wrote the lyrics to more than 1500 songs, including dozens upon dozens for movies and Broadway shows. He received 19 Academy Award nominations, and won four Best Original Song Oscars. Mercer was also a composer, a vocalist and the foresighted founder of Capitol Records. To appreciate The American Songbook, one must be familiar with this multifaceted artist.

In a revue presented last Thursday to Sunday at the Studio Theater on West 42nd Street, Accentuate The Positive staged its title song as an evangelical meeting. You've got to ac-cen-tu-ate the positive/E-li-mi-nate the negative/Latch on to the affirmative/Don't mess with Mister In-Between...(Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) Stephen Belida played a preacher while around him Lynne Halliday, Tom Hafner, Madison Stratton, Lou Steele, and Carey Van Driest chanted, sung, snapped, clapped, circled, and raised their arms in Hallelujah fashion. An auspicious beginning.

Creators Brian Hurley (at the piano), Gwen Arment (director) and Martin Tackel (producer) peppered a variety of selections from each of the genres in which Mercer created with snippets of biographical narrative. Choreography for two highlights: 1944's "G.I. Jive" performed by the ladies a la The Andrew Sisters and 1939's "Wings Over the Navy" (co-written with Harry Warren) performed by the men, was particularly skillful and fun.

Other group numbers varied in success. "In The Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (co-written with Hoagy Carmichael) felt organic, the cast apparently at an infectiously happy gathering, and a lilting version of "Dream" (Johnny Mercer) was very pretty. The latter was sympathetically followed by Madison Stratton's best, most understated performance, "This Time the Dream's On Me" (co-written with Harold Arlen).

"Blues in the Night" (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer), on the other hand, was watered down by the use of multiple voices and a pairing of "I Wanna Be Around" (co-written with Sadie Vimmerstedt) and "Goody Goody" (Matty Malneck/Johnny Mercer) was ineffectively staged with oddly broken vocals.

A tandem of "I Remember You" (co-written with Victor Schertzinger) with "One For My Baby" (co-written with Harold Arlen) was set up with originality. Van Driest and Steele stood at opposite sides of the stage wistfully singing the first number as separate recollection, without so much as glancing at each other. Steele then ostensibly entered a bar and performed the second song with just the right melancholy, resigned demeanor. When, in her part of the world, Van Driest also entered a tavern, the song was not diluted by duet. Van Driest has only sufficient lyrics to show like circumstance.

Lynne Halliday, consistently the warmest artist on stage, performed lovely renditions of "P.S. I Love You" (Gordon Jenkins/Johnny Mercer) and "That Old Black Magic" (co-written with Harold Arlen), but was unfortunately fighting a loud piano.

Three helpings of "Spring, Spring, Spring" (co-written with Gene DePaul) were delivered by the game Tom Hafner wearing a patchwork madras sports jacket and headband sporting, consecutively, birds' nests, bees, and rabbit ears. Usually a romantic lyric, the performer made this wry. Movements were jaunty, vocals appealing. Once was cute and unexpected, twice was stretching it, and three times was too many, despite the cottontail. His interpretation of "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry" (co-written with Victor Schertzinger), replete with dance steps, was winning.

The show closed, aria da capo, with "It's Great To Be Alive" and a well-arranged reprise of "Accentuate the Positive" with syncopated vocal counterpoint.


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From This Author Alix Cohen