…Forget your troubles/Come on get happy/You better chase all you cares away… Harold Arlen’s American standard (lyrics – Ted Koehler) introduces an entertaining look at the composer’s oeuvre between 1930 and 1939, from that first hit song through his beloved (and favorite) movie musical, The Wizard of Oz. (lyrics – EY Harburg.)
Discouraged from being a cantor by his parents, Hyman Arluck (1905-1986) was, by 15, forming one band after another. Prominent among these was The Buffalodians on whom intrepid archivists of this show managed to find 1926 film. As we watch the enthusiastic youngsters, onstage, Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks play an infectious “Buffalo Rhythm.” (Arluck with Ivan Beaty, Marvin Smolev.)
The celebrated composer changed his name to Arlen while an accompanist in vaudeville. He had aspired to be a vocalist. (Later, we hear a bit of recorded croon.) From Arlen’s first show, You Said It (lyrics – Jack Yellen), Host Klea Blackhurst sassily sings “Sweet and Hot”: I don’t like highbrows/Who arch their eyebrows… Andy Stein’s terrific violin adds distinctive texture (throughout the evening).
Later, our host performs “Satan’s L’il Lamb” (lyrics – EY Harburg and Johnny Mercer) which was bumped from three films, but successfully recorded. Vocal is expansive without going too far, phrasing right on the money, arrangement sheer striptease. A professional in both theater and cabaret, Blackhurst draws in her audience rather than looking over our heads.
Unexpected success with “Get Happy” propelled Arlen into composing – at first – for revues at The Cotton Club. Catherine Russell delivers an as-if-we-were-there, cheeky, horn-centric rendition of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” “Ill Wind” arrives hot and sultry, low key, but insidious, getting under one’s skin, rather than toppling barrels. Russell holds one hand up as if trying to hold off the inevitable. She never stresses vocals. Even the often histrionic “Stormy Weather,” introduced by Ethel Waters, is presented as if rife anticipation, low key and soulful. The song apparently took 30 minutes to write. (All lyrics -Ted Koehler.)
Stephen DeRosa and Klea Blackhurst
Stephen DeRosa, emphatically in the period, offers a jaunty, light-footed “Happy As the Day is Long,” (lyrics – Ted Koehler), a lyrically novel “I Love to Sing-A” (lyrics – EY Harburg), and a cute duet (with ably animated Blackhurst) of “Calabash Pipe.” (lyrics – Lew Brown.) A wonderfully expressive performer, DeRosa wiggles, bounces, dances and gestures in shades of Jolson and Cantor. His vocals, several with decidedly New York accents, are good. The artist is thoroughly engaging. And he looks at us.
Stephen DeRosa and Erin Dilly
“I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Let’s Fall in Love” (lyrics – Ted Koehler) are among those numbers presented by Erin Dilly with solid acting instincts and a pretty voice that tends to get stressed changing octaves. Nathaniel Stampley’s songs include “Down With Love” (lyrics – EY Harburg) which emerges without innate buoyancy, from – wait for it – Hooray For What! with Ed Wynn as a man who invents a gas that ends war, and the effective “Last Night When We Were Young” (lyrics – EY Harburg) during which Stampley looks sympathetically dazed and abandoned.
Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks are given ample showcase for their terrific mostly 1920s arrangements. During the playful, gyrating “Tickeration” (lyrics – Ted Koehler), we even briefly hear the band leader’s own inimitable scat.
A sing-along of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (lyrics – Billy Rose and EY Harburg) ends the evening on an up note. The well produced tribute is an auspicious beginning to this year’s eminent Lyrics and Lyricists Series.
Klea Blackhurst and Co Artistic Director and author Robert Kimball deliver illuminating, economic narrative about the celebrant. Both do a swell job. The evening is well written. Gary Griffin’s Stage Direction has charm without seeming showy. Pacing is surefooted.
As always, film and stills add dimension.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Nathaniel Stampley, Klea Blackhurst, Erin Dilly, Stephen DeRosa
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Get Happy: Harold Arlen’s Early Years
Robert Kimball: Co-Artistic Director
Vince Giordano: Co-Artistic Director, Co-Music Director, Arrangements
Klea Blackhurst: Co-Artistic Director, Vocals, Host
Gary Griffin: Stage Director
Peter Yarin: Co-Music Director, Piano
Featuring Vince Giordano And the Nighthawks
92nd Street at Lexington Avenue
January 22, 2017
NEXT: Let’s Misbehave- The Sensational Songs of Cole Porter
February 11, 12 13, 2017