Saluting two of our foremost musical theater songwriters in the same show, KT Sullivan and Jeff Harnar offer a bounty of terrific material. Though Sheldon Harnick (1924-), present tonight, and Charles Strouse (1928-) never worked together, they rose side by side in an era of such classic book shows as She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and Fiorello (Harnick) and Bye, Bye Birdie, Annie, and Applause. (Strouse.) The artists even mine a few revues for exemplary talent.
Selections are grouped together in chapters, related, with occasional exceptions, by loose theme/storyline. The last lyric in one song cleverly alludes to the first in its successor. Skillful arrangements are musically sympathetic even when they don’t literally bridge.
Sullivan and Harnar retro-shuffle around one another during a frothy “Little Old New York” …two lines of an odd choice – “Tradition” (Harnick/ Jerry Bock- Fiddler on the Roof) take us into “Nightlife” (Strouse/Lee Adams-All American) followed by the copacetic “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and “NYC” (Strouse/Adams – Bye Bye Birdie), then aria da capo, back to the Tenderloin song. Vocal Arrangements offer appealing crosscurrents. Spirits in the room palpably rise.
Harnick/Bock’s “The Very Next Man”: I’m gonna marry the very next man who asks me…and “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” join Strouse/Adams’ “You’ve Got Possibilities” and “Physical Fitness” to create a portrait. Harnar wanders through the audience, sitting on laps, caressing shoulders, flirting with various men. It’s tender and charming. In this chapter of his professional life, the artist changes pronouns to reflect personal choice.
Later, he illuminates the downside of romance with a halting “One Boy” (Strouse/Adams- Bye, Bye Birdie), wounded “Where Do I Go From Here?” (you just want to put your arms around the vocalist) and redemptive “Vanilla Ice Cream” (Harnick/Bock- She Loves Me). Harnar has the skill to make us believe lyrics. It’s startling, then, when high tenor interpretation of this last song changes an otherwise poignant turn to camp. Note: the second, cut from Fiorello, is worthy of more exposure.
…And there was a man…he gulps, Oh, I loved him so…Swathed in a black feather boa, Harnar sings “No Man is Worth It.” Just a bit less draping across the piano top would insure a less parodied effect. Harnar’s signature authenticity could carry it off. (Strouse/ Alan Jay Lerner- Dance a Little Closer)
Sullivan’s comic rendition of “Boston Beguine” (Harnick) employs the New England aah with a decided wink: Bahstan, Hahvad, pahk: “We went to the Casbah, that’s an Irish bar there/The underground hideout of the D.A.R. there…” It’s a hoot. “Since My Canary Died”: “I sit alone in my flat cursing my cat…” is aptly tremulous. (Harnick/Herb Greene) Across the stage, Harnar appears concerned.
We can feel the vocalist’s pulse race as she inhabits wretched Margo Channing’s “One Halloween.”. “But Alive” erupts out of it with as much well played desperation as verve. (Strouse/Adams-Applause) A snippet of “Miracle of Miracles” segues into “If I Were a Rich MAN”, emphasis intended. Again, taking it down would more effectively make the presumed statement. (Harnick/Bock-Fiddler on the Roof)
Director Sondra Lee is wonderful with fitting visuals. Sullivan and Harnar gracefully move around with focus guided in accordance to song content. Even sitting occurs at the right time. Instances of self-conscious, wink/wink humor could be omitted without missing them.
Evocative duets of “Night Song”: Summer/Not a bit of breeze/Neon signs are shining/Through the tired trees… and “Once Upon a Time” are wistful and warm. Watching Sullivan and Harnar, I think of Rilke’s “two solitudes who salute and respect each other.” (Strouse/Adams- Golden Boy & All American)
“Mad” (Strouse/Lerner- Dance a Little Closer) and “Put On a Happy Face”
(Strouse/Adams-Bye Bye Birdie) arrive as face to face combat. MD/Arranger/Pianist Jon Weber then chimes in with prudent advice= “Perspective.” That the three sync musically as well as emotionally is a marvel. (Harnick Bock- She Loves Me)
“Do You Love Me?” (Harnick/Bock) and “One of A Kind” (Strouse/Adams) work unexpectedly well together. Friends 28 years, Sullivan and Harnar are playful. You may be hard on the nerves…Harnar laughs, But it’s never dull, he continues laying his head on her shoulder. A political sequence is just as dark and relevant years after being written. What nature doesn’t do to us, will be done by our fellow man. (“The Merry Minuet”- Harnick)
“Applause” (Strause/Adams- Applause) seems a fitting close to the winning buffet we’ve sampled. “To Life” (Harnick/Bock-Fiddler on the Roof) follows with heart and gusto. L’Chiam!
Caveat: The show needs editing. Songs literally represented by a lyric line or two are awkward and often don’t fit.
Opening Photo: Maryann Lopinto
Sullivan & Harnar Sing Harnick & Strouse
KT Sullivan & Jeff Harnar sing Sheldon Harnick & Charles Strouse
Musical Director/Arrangements/Piano Jon Weber
Director- Sondra Lee
The Laurie Beechman Theatre in The Westbank Café
407 West 42nd Street
Additional Shows: September 10, November 2, December 3 and 10