Cy Coleman had a lengthy, multifaceted, successful career. A child prodigy, he began giving classical piano concerts at age six, went on to found a jazz trio, excelled at popular music, wrote Broadway hits and even film scores. When David Zippel approached Coleman, his one-time collaborator, with the idea of a review, the composer responded, “That’s for after I’m gone…” The show currently mounted at 59E59 Street Theaters* would’ve made him wince.
On a cheap looking, glitzy set reminiscent of a Twilight Zone view of the 1960s, crammed with band members whose presence does nothing but impede movement, six extremely mismatched singers seem to be competing in a contest for the loudest, most cloying eleven o’clock number possible. With complete disregard for lyrics, songs are almost consistently buried by brassy up tempo arrangements that minimize distinctions and murder emotional impact. Even the cha chas are strident. Opportunities for harmony and counterpoint are largely ignored in favor of walls of sound. Medleys contain material which seems at best, cousins once removed: Hey, Look Me Over and The Doodling Song (both lyrics—Carolyn Leigh) are diametrically opposed. Sequential choices have Direction is fussy and hammy. Singers who know better mug and gesture like cutsie robots. Choreography is trite. Costuming is unflattering and uncoordinated.
Aggressively talented Lillias White almost single handedly rescues the evening from complete homogenization. Her rendition of Don’t Ask A Lady (lyrics—Carolyn Leigh) is skillfully sassy but only a prelude to the tandem, Never Met A Man I Didn’t Like (lyrics—Betty Comden/Adolph Green) and The Oldest Profession(lyrics—Ira Gasman). The charismatic White winks, shimmies, sits spreading, and whips off an Afro wig to reveal the exhausted hot mama embodied in the second song with which she stopped the show in Broadway’s The Life (reaping numerous theatrical awards). Her soaring voice, controlled lower range, and at-ti-tude (acting!) are heady. Later, in a charming duet of Little Me (lyrics—Carolyn Leigh), with the suddenly, delightfully low-key, Stritch, she’s flirty and playful—physically as well as vocally. Orchestrations for these numbers sounded cleaner, though the impression could’ve derived from performance.
In addition to his jaunty duet, the usually eminently reliable Billy Stritch delivers two solos which seem as if they fell out of a different production. Stylish, uncomplicated vocals accompanied by his own fine piano and thankfully more minimal, swingy backup are a relief.
Most of the cast appears more concerned with notes than character or song intention. Duets are often sung to the audience rather than the stage partner supposedly involved in musical dialogue. The implicit humor in Never Enough: I’m begging you please/I’m down on my knees/All right on all fours/I want to be yours and blatant sexy humor of The Measure of Love are nonexistent. (both lyrics—David Zippel) Neither Only The Rest of My Life (lyrics—David Zippel) or Witchcraft (lyrics—Carolyn Leigh) has romantic heft. The latter might need a baritone, it certainly requires heat rather than posing. A Sinatra hat only emphasizes what’s missing. As presented, lyrics are simply unbelievable.
This is a seasoned cast, particularly five of its members. They hit the notes (sometimes richly) and their marks. Melodies are borne, occasionally aloft. There are attempts to convey real sentiment. The program’s developers and creative staff have serious collective history.
Really, what are these people thinking?!
A show, unfortunately, “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
* The Best Is Yet to Come was originally staged for California’s Rubicon Theater Company in 2009
Photos by Carol Rosegg:
1. (From left) Lillias White, David Burnham, Sally Mayes, Billy Stritch (behind, on piano), Howard McGillin, and Rachel York.
2. Billy Stritch and Lillias White.
The Best Is Yet To Come: The Music of Cy Coleman
Lillias White, Billy Stritch, Sally Mayes, Howard McGillin,
Rachel York, David Burnham
Directed by David Zippel
59E59 St Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through July 3, 2011