Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June 2009
Even if you just started reading my reviews last week, it must be evident that I am an avid theatre historian, especially when it comes to American musical theatre. So you would think that Broadway By The Year®, a series of revues created by fellow theatre historian and critic Scott Siegel chronicling Broadway musicals year by year, would be right up my alley. In its full form, probably, but this pinched and packaged version the BTF has imported to open their 2009 Main Stage season nearly put me to sleep.
Let me explain the difference between what is on the stage in Stockbridge and what Siegel presents at The Town Hall in New York City. There you get an evening entirely devoted to one year on Broadway – here you get a first act of songs from shows that opened in 1930 and a second act of songs from 1964. There you get a cast of about ten or twelve of New York’s best singer/actors – here you have only three talented folks. There you get Ross Patterson and his Little Big Band – here you get Patterson solo on piano.
These differences impact the quality of the show in the following ways. Devoting about 50 minutes to each year means that the songs are winnowed down to the Top Ten – and only the Top Ten suited to the talents of the three performers on hand. In most cases these are very, very familiar songs. And they are mostly solos (that way the cast needs minimal rehearsal time together). This is theatre music, and musical theatre of 1930 and 1964 was big cast stuff (Sigmund Romberg’s Nina Rose, one of the boffo hits of 1930 from which we get exactly one song, employed a cast of 150) so when a character is left alone on stage to sing, it is usually a quiet moment of deep, personal introspection. Ten consecutive moments of deep, personal introspection in a row don’t make for a scintillating evening of theatre.
These musical moments are interspersed with Siegel’s pontificating from a podium down stage right. The little nuggets of theatre history he provides are often fun and enlightening, but they are delivered in the driest possible manner. I know first hand that being a theatre historian and critic does not make you a performer, but I am sure Siegel is passionate about the information he is imparting and I wish more of that passion came across in his delivery.
The cast of three are Christiane Noll, Kerry O’Malley, and Scott Coulter. I have given you links to their Web sites so that you can read, see, and hear what these three performers have to offer. They are very, very talented and attractive. But all they get to do here is stand and sing. Coulter gets credit for directing, but there is little blocking and nothing that can really pass for choreography. Each singer walks on, hits their mark, and sings. No one is playing a character, and if they are playing themselves then these are three talented but vapid individuals. There is no set, just Patterson and his piano on stage and some slick lighting effects courtesy of Matthew E. Adelson. The ladies get to change from one pretty dress to another periodically. Ho hum.
Here’s what I liked best: Patterson’s quiet and impressive expertise as an accompanist, the four numbers that all three singers performed together – the vocal arrangements were fresh and superb – and any time O’Malley was allowed to belt out a big brassy show-stopper like Don’t Rain on My Parade or the title song from I Had A Ball.
Here’s what was missing: a second, and deeper, male voice. Coulter, who has my undying love and loyalty for his 1995 appearance at the Theater Barn as Jinx in Forever Plaid, has an amazing high tenor, but there was no one to hit the low notes. I longed for a basso profundo, or at least a strong baritone, to add to the harmonics.
Thirty-two musicals opened on Broadway in 1930 – a year when America still had a nostalgic foot in the Roaring Twenties while being dragged inexorably and unwillingly forward into the Great Depression – and act one contains numbers from seven of them: the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy and Strike Up the Band, Cole Porter’s The New Yorkers, Rodgers and Hart’s Simple Simon, Romburg’s Nina Rose, a Harold Arlen tune from The 9:15 Revue, and one number by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour, and Johnny Green from Three’s a Crowd.
1964 was such a big year for American musicals that Siegel has actually devoted two entire Broadway By The Year® evenings to it. Here it is winnowed down to familiar tunes from the year’s biggest hits – Jerry Herman’s Hello, Dolly!, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s Funny Girl, and Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof – two numbers from Stephen Sondheim’s famous flop Anyone Can Whistle, the aforementioned I Had a Ball by Jack Lawrence and Stan Freeman, and one song from the seldom-heard musical adaptation of Coward’s Blithe Spirit, High Spirits, by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray.
I am sure that full-scale Broadway By The Year® evenings are filled with fun surprises like Home Sweet Heaven from High Sprits and The Richest Man in Town, cut from Fiddler... (and replaced with Miracles of Miracles, which is also performed here) not just pleasing renditions of Sunrise, Sunset, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, and other songs so over exposed as to be soporific.
When I was a teenager I subscribed to a wonderful series at the 92nd Street Y called Lyrics and Lyricists which did much the same thing Siegel’s series does only the songs were grouped by lyricists instead of by year. If the lyricist was still living s/he would speak and perform, and there would be exciting guests – a big star who had debuted a popular number or the lyricist’s former composer partner to whom they hadn’t spoken in a decade. I remember vividly Fred Ebb performing a spirited rendition of Cole Porter’s Yale Fight Song (Porter, not Ebb, was being feted that night but Porter is dead Ebb was on hand to talk about how Porter had influenced his work.) I imagine that this is what Broadway By The Year® is really like. You learn a little theatre history, you hear fabulous performers singing some of your favorites and some great songs that have been egregiously overlooked. There are some musical interludes with The Ross Patterson Little Big Band and some fun ensemble numbers, quartets, trios, and duets as well as poignant solos. That I’d pay good money to see.
The top ticket price for Broadway By The Year® at the BTF is $63. In NYC its $50 and you get a bigger, better show. I can’t see what you get sitting through this production that you couldn’t get from a good recording, and luckily many of Siegel’s Broadway By The Year® evenings (although not the one for 1930 and the two for 1964) have been recorded and are available for about $18 each from Footlight Records, as are original cast recordings of many of the shows represented here, solo and cast recordings featuring Coulter, Noll, and O'Malley, and recordings that contain even the most obscure numbers (yes, even My First Love – My Last Love from Nina Rose).
Broadway By The Year® runs through June 27 on the Main Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Festival (413-298-5536) between Rts. 7 & 102 in Stockbridge. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is certainly suitable for all ages, but the lack of story and static staging make it boring for young children.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009