Saturday, July 31, 2010

Summer Broadway Festival

As Charles Isherwood correctly pointed out in his latest Sunday New York Times feature, the summer theater season in New York has been less than joyous in both quality and character. After all, Dostoevsky, Shylock and mathematical equations don’t exactly scream fun. So thank heavens for Town Hall’s Summer Broadway Festival, three back-to-back Monday nights of musical theater concerts. Looking back, the three concerts were marked by innovation and creativity, a tribute to established performers and the promise of new talent, as well as a bit of disappointment and occasional oddities.

Let’s start with the first concert, which was titled “Broadway Winners” and directed by Alexander Gemignani. Just as when I first saw it last year, I’m still scratching my head over the concept. According to host-creator Scott Siegel, it’s meant to highlight award-winning Broadway music. Fair enough, but that’s way too broad a concept. What decent musical hasn’t won at least one award, whether it be a Tony for Best Musical or Best Score, or a Grammy for Best Recording, or an Oscar for the film adaptation, or a Drama Desk or Drama Critics Circle Award, or anything else. And what about awards for revivals? Essentially, almost any song from any musical can qualify to be a part of this concert. Even a song from “Doctor Doolittle” somehow made it into the concert. How? Don’t ask.

But I’m not complaining. “Broadway Winners” was, on the whole, a solid concert of great performers singing great songs. By offering familiar songs, it defined the musical theater concert equivalent of light summertime entertainment. (For a full review of “Broadway Winners,” scroll down to my earlier post.)

“Broadway’s Rising Stars,” which showcases young performers that just graduated from musical theater college programs, was a letdown for me. I’ve attended this concert for the past three years and have been consistently impressed. Last year, I was particularly awed by Scott Coulter’s sensitive direction and how he brought out such well-crafted performances from all the young performers. Coulter directed again this year, but the quality of the performances was extremely mixed. Interestingly enough, the concert begun quite poorly, and slowly managed to get better and better and more and more professional. By the end, the concert was a smash. But in the beginning, it resembled a high school talent show.

How exactly did it begin? Not with a big ensemble number, but with the lamest opening sequence I’ve ever seen at a Town Hall concert. Emcee Scott Siegel introduced the performers one by one as they walked across the stage and made funny faces, making them look amateurish instead of professional. Then Jacob Smith gave a hollow performance of one of the derivative and annoyingly repetitive anthem “This is the Moment.” This was followed by a similarly shallow rendition of “Something’s Coming” from James Erickson. Jennie McGuiness, backed by a quartet of boys, treated “I Got Rhythm” as if it were the talent portion of a beauty contest, trying desperately to wow us.

Things started to change with Jeff Raab performing “There is a Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute,” who possessed real zest and presence. Stephen Lukas made a smart choice in performing not from “Phantom of the Opera” (as Carolyn Amaridio) did, but sang instead from “Love Never Dies.” Not that the song was all too great, but he managed to be the first performer of any kind to my knowledge to perform a song from it on a New York stage. Emmy Raver-Lampman delivered one of the best renditions of “Tomorrow” I’ve ever heard, giving it an adult sensibility. And as an absolutely stunning finisher to Act One, Ellisha Marie Thomas sang “Circle of Life” with the entire cast placed throughout the audience providing backup vocal support.

Act Two was similarly strong. Jessica Wager and the ensemble were wonderful in “Good Morning Baltimore.” Paris Nix gave a deeply felt performance of “Night Song” from “Golden Boy.” Laura Darrell and Danielle Columbo scored with the “Mack and Mabel” solos “Time Heals Everything” and “Wherever He Aint” respectively. The finale was a cute mash-up of “It’s Today” from “Mame” and “All I Need is One Good Break” from “Flora the Red Menace,” followed by an encore of “Stand by Me.” Frankly, the mash-up should have been used as the opening number.

In any case, the audience seemed to truly eat up the concert. It’s worth noting that much, if not most, of the audience consisted of friends and family of the featured young performers. As such, the atmosphere felt less like a typical Town Hall concert and more like a graduation ceremony. It's also worth noting that the featured performers came from many different schools, about half of them were graduates of the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. Why is that? On the whole, they were quite weaker in their performances than the grads of NYU and other schools of the performing arts.

The best of the concert series was saved for last. “All Singin All Dancin,” directed and choreographed by Jeffry Denman, proved to be the most physically ambitious concert I’ve ever seen produced by the Town Hall/Broadway by the Year series. For starters, the band, which is typically located onstage, was pushed backstage in order to give the dancers more room. And Scott Siegel’s podium was also removed. Instead, Siegel came onstage in between musical numbers. (With all due respect to music director Ross Paterson and Scott Siegel, I thought this layout was much more professional than usual, though I’d be willing to compromise with having Paterson and the band onstage and Siegel offstage. It also meant that Siegel couldn’t invite back performers to take additional bows, a well-meant but unnecessary practice that adds on at least five minutes to the length of every concert.)

The finale and centerpiece of Denman’s ambitious efforts was a new staging of Richard Rodgers’ 1930s noir “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” It was a stunner. But my favorite spot had to be the Act One finale, a revision of “The Cell Block Tango” with new lyrics from “Chicago” that focused on the five men who were shot and killed by those five merry murderesses. It was an absolute hoot and I hope it lives on beyond this initial concert as a permanent cabaret piece. Denman and Noah Racey delivered a tap-happy new version of “Necessity” from “Finian’s Rainbow” that I originally saw two and a half years ago at a “Broadway by the Year” concert. Denman was also smashing in “Two Lost Souls” from “Damn Yankees,” which he performed with his wife Erin Denman, and in “Someone is Waiting” from “Company,” in which a quintet of women surrounded him gracefully.

Karen Akers, the original Luisa from “Nine,” gave wonderful performances of “Be on Your Own” and “Only with You” from that terrific musical (that recently received a less-than-wonderful film adaptation). And Ron Raines, though vocally ailing, was absolutely tremendous with “September Song” and “I Won’t Send Roses.” Quite frankly, I’ve never seen “I Won’t Send Roses” sung with such incredible feeling and melancholy. And a special shout-out to Scott Coulter, who joined the cast at the very, very last minute to sing “Promises, Promises” in place of Raines.

In sum, overall, I’d like to thank Town Hall and Siegel for continuing to offer such extensive and ambitious entertainment in what has otherwise been an empty summer for musical theater in New York. So long as they keep pumping out these concerts, I’ll be there.

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