Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck offer a valentine to New York unlike endless predecessors. Though the inimitable collaborators eschew that song (“New York, New York”), there are numbers others have performed. These two, however, manage to apply fresh spin with masterful interweaving/inventive arrangements, buoyed by Harnar’s hallmark sincerity, puckish humor, and illusory indecent ease. Spoiler alert – not all material is New York-centric.
From the top, two Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields songs, Harnar is a master class in connection with the audience. He looks at us. “There isn’t a single song about New York that doesn’t light me up like the top of the Chrysler Building.” High spirits are infectious. The show’s title “East Side of Heaven” (James V. Monaco/ Johnny Burke), part sung, part parlando, is a veritable, enacted scene-in-one.
“We take a karmic roll of the dice every time we step out the door here,” prefaces “I Walk a Little Faster” (Cy Coleman/Carolyn Lee) under sway of “37 years of dating in New York.” “Lonely Town” (Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden & Adolph Green) organically follows, directly from the gut. Hands in his pockets, Harnar seems completely vulnerable. The songs are heady and deeply pained.
His droll side emerges with Jule Styne/Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s “Subway Directions” which arrives a giddy, tongue-twisting parentheses without a dropped stitch. And Larry Kerchner’s playful “My Dinner with Mrs. Farnsworth” (Noel Coward would’ve loved this) apparently written for Jeff. Replete with affected accent, featuring bravura comic timing, Harnar addresses his unseen hostess with panache and a dash of disdain. Accompaniment is influenced by minuet.
One of several highlights tonight is the flat out brilliant “Sondheim’s Oklahoma.” Songwriter Rick Crom reinterprets a succession of the musical’s iconic, Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers as if penned by Sondheim. Beginning with “Sunday in The Meadow with Curly,” the suite is filled with recognizable themes somehow rarely lifting actual tunes and with immensely clever reworking of lyrics. Harnar presents these deadpan to terrific effect. “Would I Leave You Oklahoma?” is a gem.
Also by Sondheim comes the happy-go-lucky “What More Do I Need?” …Once I hated this city/Now it can’t get me down/Slushy, humid and gritty/What a pretty/ Town… If I can love you, I’ll pay the dirt no heed!/With your love, what more do I need?… Piano at the playground, Harnar is frisky and expansive. We can practically feel a giddy whoosh.
Returning to gravitas are four songs which appear to have special significance to Harnar. “What a Funny Boy He Is” (Alex Rybeck/Michael Stewart) shimmers with tenderness …no work of art/And yet so tender/He breaks my heart… “How Little We Know” (Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer) conjures a paper boat (relationship) tossed on a rippling stream. Piano is simply gorgeous. “Blame It On My Youth” rises heart-in-throat bittersweet. “Falling in Love with Love” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) in a cartwheeling Jacques Brel-like arrangement seems tonight like foreboding. A wowza segment.
“I’m not gonna leave you with that,” Harnar assures us. “Much like Charity Hope Valentine (Sweet Charity), I’m in New York in great good faith of the what if.” Romantic songs radiate resolved optimism steeped in the singer’s peerless croon. “Stranger in Paradise” (George Forest/ Robert Wright) is tagged with a few lines from “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin & Buddy DeSilva).
We close with “But the World Goes Round” (John Kander/Fred Ebb) and “That’s Life” (Dean Kay/Kelly Gordon) which begin quietly then, again a la Brel, swell to high wattage emphasis as if Harnar is determined to face the world brave and expectant. This might be the only eleven o’clock number by which I’ve been palpably moved. The artist appears stripped bare. Oh, that voice can soar!
An unfurled encore of Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” (with additional lyrics by Harnar) remains close to the bone. Jeff Harnar’s talent and flair coupled with Alex Rybeck’s abundant, symbiotic skill leaves us reeling.
Patter is brief, genial, personal, and apt.
My single caveat is a song comparing the shape of New York to a penis which aims to be funny and lands distastefully out of place.
Opening and map photos by Phyllis Kinsler
Last photo by Maryann Lopinto
Jeff Harnar on The East Side of Heaven
Alex Rybeck- MD/Arrangements/Piano
The Beach Café
1326 Second Avenue at 70th Street
March 23, 2019
I recommend this venue to those of you still Beach virgins. It’s intimate, unpretentious, highly respectful of performers, and serves a good meal.