John Kander (1927-) and Fred Ebb (1928-2004) were introduced in 1962 and collaborated on their first Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace (introducing Liza Minnelli) in 1965. Career highlights include the iconic may-run-forever Cabaret, successively revived Chicago- (both made into films), Lauren Bacall’s transition from film to theater in Woman of the Year, and the formidable Scottsboro Boys. The multifaceted team also wrote “New York, New York”, arguably our city anthem- the theme to Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name.
Certain music from Kander’s oeuvre is so evocative of memorable theater, it makes the hairs on one’s arm stand at attention. The Pop’s opening, Suite from Chicago does just that. Some of the audience bob in their seats or tap their feet, others mouth lyrics. More than an era or city, Kander and Ebb (here with Bob Fosse) captured an ethos of gleefully celebrated corruption uncomfortably familiar today. I suspect Cabaret continues to pack them in for the same reason. The shows are not just innovative and entertaining, they’re resonant.
John Kander in the balcony. To his right, director Susan Stroman
Tonight’s Guest Vocalists are both young Broadway veterans.
Cassie Leavy has a smooth, confident voice that can unfurl with moderation or belt, though she seems audibly more at home with the latter. She has stage presence. Results, however, are mixed: “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, lack pathos and bite. “Roxy” (Chicago) and “Everybody’s Girl” (Steel Pier) are missing their innately wicked play. One wonders whether the youthful performer understands the songs’ context.
More contemporary, ‘Ring Them Bells” (Liza with a Z) and “Colored Lights” (The Rink) fare better. Leavy embodies pluck and exasperation attributable to the first song’s protagonist. With the second, we feel hope and ambition as her voice lilts and loops with sweet, trailing vibrato.
Tony Yazbeck rushes through the terrific “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (70 Girls, 70) -due to speedy arrangement that robs the number authenticity and delivers a couple of songs as Billy Flynn from Chicago, a role to which he’s imminently returning, with no discernible charisma.
Tony Yazbeck, Steven Reineke, Cassie Levy
Act II, however, sees a complete transformation. Yazbeck’s delicate “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (Woman of the Year) with only piano accompaniment, is eminently tender and touching. “You, You, You” (The Visit) follows suit with palpable yearning. Both of these showcase the performer’s emotional tenor. Yazbeck then offers this evening’s zenith, “City Lights” (The Act) during which, having infectious fun, he grows fully animated, even engaging in loosey goosey, complex tap dance.
In addition to a sassy overture, The New York Pops Orchestra excels with “Hot Honey Rag” (Chicago) which grins, twirls, and flips its hat in textured musical layers and a powerful, lush rendition of “The Minstrel March” (The Scottsboro Boys).
Music Director/Conductor Steven Reineke keeps us abreast of each song’s origin with a bit of amiable patter. At his suggestion, we sing “Happy Birthday” to John Kander, spot-lit in the balcony. Far from retired, the honoree’s Kid Victory (written with Greg Pierce) is playing at New York’s Vineyard Theatre. He’s now at work on The Beast of The Jungle, based on a novella by Henry James.
John Kander celebrates his 90th Birthday on March 18. We honor both his partnership and continuing high craft.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Cassie Levy
NEXT for The New York Pops:
You’ve Got a Friend: A Celebration of Singers and Songwriters- April 21, 2017
Carnegie Hall presents
The New York Pops
Steven Reineke-Music Director and Conductor
Guest Artists: Cassie Levy, Tony Yazbeck
Life Is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb