Broadway Close Up – Party at The Gershwins

“Tonight, we not gonna have a concert, we’re gonna have a party,” begins Host Sean Hartley. In fact, the evening is set up as such. A ringing door bell announces performers. Each is asked what got them through lockdown and announces a song. Hartley then illuminates the material. After singing, artists retire to an ersatz living room where an open bar cart awaits. Production is fluid, friendly and casual, yet polished in execution. The 92Y would do well to consider Hartley for Lyrics and Lyricists when that program resumes.

Iconic songwriters of the 20s and 30s often met for the first time at one of George and Ira Gershwin’s parties. The brothers shared apartments or lived near one another both on the Upper West Side and in the Hollywood Hills. Hartley plays and sings a jaunty “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” (The Gershwins – Damsel in Distress) followed by MD/Pianist Greg Jarrett’s instrumental “Walking the Dog” (George Gershwin – Shall We Dance.) Our host describes the movie’s amusing deck scene. Listening out of context adds new appreciation.

Highlights of the evening:

Eddie Cooper’s “I Got Plenty of Nothing” (The Gershwins/Dubose Heyward – Porgy and Bess) is eminently expressive. Almost completely still until “no use complainin” provokes one arm to rise, the artist imbues his interpretation with appealing innocence. Vocal control is splendid.

Eric Comstock notes that Irving Berlin, whom George Gershwin called, “The greatest songwriter that ever lived,” understood the human condition. “And of course, no holiday was safe.” He then accompanies Barbara Fasano in a wonderfully original arrangement of “Blue Skies” (Betsy) in which jazz and classical music mesh. Fasano’s iconoclastic phrasing and slip/slide octave changes shine.

The lesser known “Don’t Mention Love to Me” (Oscar Levant/Dorothy Fields) and “Blame It On My Youth” (Oscar Levant/Edward Heyman) are then performed by Comstock who can be counted on to disinter something with which we’re unfamiliar. (Levant and Gershwin were dear friends.) The first song exemplifies seemingly effortless natural phrasing. The second fills the room with palpable tenderness.

“I Won’t Dance” (Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields) with initial lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, first went into London’s Three Sisters which proved a failure. Kern then gave the melody and title to Dorothy Fields for Roberta. This is the version we know. Gabrielle Stravelli’s incredibly flexible voice offers a bright, jazzy performance.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” arrives by way of Karen Ziemba (we’ve missed you!) who deftly inhabits every sentiment. The performer’s relatable presence, fine voice, and ability to communicate are always welcome. (The Gershwins – A Damsel in Distress.)

Tonight’s zenith is Kate Baldwin’s “Let’s Not Talk About Love”(Cole Porter – Let’s Face It) with added, contemporary lyrics by Sean Hartley. Baldwin’s precision, humor, and sparkle (someone put her back on Broadway!) bring out every marvelous turn of lyric from passian/Kardashian/fashion to dance again/dear old Evan Hansigen to gender fluidity/ senator stupidity. “It takes a little chutzpah to rewrite Cole Porter.” Just grand.

Also:

 “The Man I Love” (The Gershwins) was cut from Lady Be Good, put into Strike Up the Band -which closed out of town – then revived for Rosalie, where it was again cut. Farah Alvin’s rendition is a sympathetic trill. Charlotte Maltby, who seems to sing above the note (not a criticism) performs “The Song Is You” which begins lilting, then pushes. (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II – Music in the Air) One of George Gershwin’s first jobs, Hartley tells us, was playing for a Kern show.

Kirsten Scott and Matthew Scott duet Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart’s “Manhattan,” a song Hartley calls one of the most important in American Musical Theater. After six years together, Rodgers was so discouraged with their progress, he was about to accept a job selling children’s underwear when the collaborators were asked by The Theatre Guild to do a benefit called The Garrick Gaities. “Manhattan” elicited two rousing encores. The Guild closed their current show, a Lunt/Fontaine piece, and gave the Gaities a run, jump-starting the careers of Rodgers and Hart. The Scotts are fresh-faced, cute and melodic together.

From Girl Crazy, we hear “I Got Rhythm” (The Gershwins) as rendered by Jason Robinson, who admits his childhood aspiration to be Ethel Merman, then demonstrates. Personality will out. Michael Winther’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” (The Gershwins – Oh, Kay!) is sung as if “to another dude.” And why not? He’s sweet and sincere if stressing usual phrases.

The evening closes with a sing-along, lyrics in our programs though few seem to need them. A marvelous party.

Sean Hartley

Opening Photo: George and Ira Gershwin and photo of Sean Hartley courtesy of The Kaufman Music Center

Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center presents
Broadway Close Up- Party at The Gershwins
Host- Sean Hartley
Music Direction- Greg Jarrett

This program is dedicated to the loving memory of longtime Trustee and dearest friend of Kaufman Music Center, Charles Dimson.

COMING: Broadway Close Up: Sing Me a Story
December 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Explore the great tradition of storytelling in song, with examples from both Broadway and pop music. A stellar cast of Broadway stars will perform songs by Kander & Ebb, Rupert Holmes, William Finn, Bock & Harnick, Gilbert & Sullivan, Joni Mitchell, Noel Coward, Dan Fogelberg, David Yazbek, Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, Cole Porter and Barry Manilow
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About Alix Cohen (1186 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.