Randy Graff

I grew up in the Boston area and as an emerging theatre professional, right out of college, I got jobs working at the historic Wilbur, Shubert, and Colonial Theatres. The history of shows that came through Boston before coming to Broadway was not lost on me. In fact, I spent many hours working on a huge marble table in the basement of the Colonial, which I found out was the same table where Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers made the final tweaks on Oklahoma!.

On Thursday night at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., I was treated to another peice of theatre history (and present) in the performance of the legendary Randy Graff, as part of Barabara Cook's Broadway Spotlight series. Graff let us know the Kennedy Center was her favorite venue in the U.S. Her first visit here was 30 years ago, starring as Fantine in a little new musical called Les Miserables. Little did she know at the time, that the song she introduced in D.C. and then on Broadway - "I Dreamed a Dream" would fast become the most over-performed song in musical theatre.

What happened Thursday night though, was not only a trip down memory lane with a woman who created roles in Les Miserables, City of Angels, and one of my all time favorites, A Class Act. It was a master class in how to perform a song.

Along with musical director, arranger, and husband Tim Weil, Graff took us on a journey from her Brooklyn roots (the Brooklyn that came before the double-wide stollers), through her life on Broadway, around the country, and back to Brooklyn - as only a super fan of Barba Streisand can do.

She opened with the familiar "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and followed with Comden, Green & Styne's "Comes Once in a Lifetime," first made popular by Judy Garland. These two songs back to back, provided an effective intro for those who knew Graff, as well as those few who were getting their first taste.

Once she had us in the palm of her hand, it was time to show us what she's really all about with a haunting arrangement of "I'll Be Seeing You." Already a bit of a heart wrencher, considering the song's popularity following World War II, Graff adds a gravitas and hope to the lyric which brings it comfortably into 2015.

Reminiscing about old Brooklyn, sharing stories of loves long gone, she took us through a mashup of "Remember" and "Neverland," as well as a clever 60's medley, including a few songs you may have caught last month as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical came through the Kennedy Center ("One Fine Day," "This Magic Moment, "Bossa Nova," and "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"). One last bittersweet collection recounting high school moments of love long gone, included "Close to You," "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," and "Alfie."

Graff then told us some brilliant, funny and poignant stores about the inspiration she found in Barbra Streisand, and her debut in Les Miserables. We've all heard "I Dreamed a Dream" hundreds of times at this point - even if you never listen to musicals, it's pretty hard to avoid. And when Graff first sang it, and in the recording we're familiar with, she was incredible. There was an ease to her voice, a youth and simplicity to what she was singing about and it was great. Thirty years later, a beautiful woman stood before us, a person who knows better, who's had the experience someone singing this song should understand. It was a little more work and the notes don't necessarily come as easily, but I found myself in a position I've never felt hearing this song. In the hundreds of times I've listened to it - never before have I wanted someone to succeed so much. I was in her corner and couldn't be happier about it. Not unexpectedly, this was a highlight of the evening.

Of course, hearing City of Angels' "You Can Always Count on Me" performed by the original star is a special treat. And Graff's still got it. But for me - it was her performance of "What I Did For Love" from Ed Kleban and Brooklyn boy Marvin Hamlisch was what the evening was all about. It's a song with a lot of meat in it, and every time I hear it, I learn something new. With a special dedication to the also-brilliant Natascia Diaz (who was in the house), she brought everything and more to the performer anthem.

Closing out the evening, she reclaimed Barbra's "People" for her own, bringing everything beautifully full-circle. Between the talent at the microphone and the brilliant Weil on the piano, arranging and re-arranging, this evening was one of the greatest evenings I've spent in a theatre in a long time.

Barbara Cook's Spotlight: Randy Graff was performed on Friday, October 30, 2015 at The Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater - 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or visit their calendar.

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