Most fans know composer/songwriter/pianist Cy Coleman (Seymour Kaufman 1929-2004) as an author of such musical theater successes as Sweet Charity, Barnum, and The Will Rodgers Follies. In fact, the classically trained child prodigy was drawn to popular music, particularly jazz, penning dozens upon dozens of songs recorded by iconic vocalists.
Guest Artistic Director Billy Stritch (piano/vocals) is a natural and fortuitous choice to helm this program. Co-written with the knowledgeable Andy Propst, author of You Fascinate Me So: The Life and Times of Cy Coleman, narrative is warm and illuminating. Not only is Stritch a superb performer/musician/arranger, but he briefly knew Coleman and is able to share his own affectionate and respectful experience of the man. The sum total is top flight entertainment. (Stritch should do this more often.)
“Tin Pan Alley,” written with Coleman’s first collaborator Joseph McCarthy, Jr., is a dancey valentine to the business: …where music with a lyric/has caused a dizzy mirac-le…It’s Jolson singing Mammy/ that put the A in Alabamy…Stritch’s solo does it charming justice. His “I’ll Be Coming Back” (Al Stillman) shows the mercurial musician’s hip, Philip Marlowe side and facility with tonight’s celebrated genre.
La Tanya Hall
Also written with McCarthy, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” is rendered by La Tanya Hall with a satiny voice skating just above circling brushes. Hall intermittently looks at the audience as if she’s in an intimate club and can see faces. This is immensely engaging. Later, her interpretation of “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston) manages to be pissed off without sounding abrasive. The vocalist has a husky purr she uses to fine effect.
In addition to McCarthy, we hear songs for which Coleman partnered with such as Carolyn Leigh (a fruitful, but tempestuous collaboration during which some songs were legendary for the spontaneity and speed with which they were created), Dorothy Fields, Peggy Lee, Floyd Huddleston, Buddy Greco, and Marilyn and Alan Bergman.
In his Y debut, Nicolas King presents “I Walk a Little Faster” (Carolyn Leigh) with appealing phrasing that includes a minute pause after “walk” a little faster, one between keep and bumping into walls…and a little laugh at nothing but disaster…as if he can’t control his behavior.
King, like Hall, looks at faces. In some ways, we’ve watched him grow up onstage (since age 11). Probably a reincarnated member of The Rat Pack, it’s good to see the artist channel his decisive flair into more restrained delivery. Even during the dense, bracing “You Wanna Bet” (Dorothy Fields), he moves around the stage vocally swinging without overt flamboyance.
The jaunty “Doodling Song” is performed, with inviting vocal arrangement, by Stritch, King, and Gabrielle Stravelli. Stritch first heard the captivating number on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Another group selection featuring Debby Boone, Gabrielle Stravelli, and Hall, “Bouncing Back For More,” was bumped from successive Broadway musicals only to have its first public outing on a television special with Lucille Ball and Shirley MacLaine. The snappy trio is enhanced by cute, synchronized movement. (Both Carolyn Leigh)
Stravelli showcases quiet intensity and expert control with “Rules Of the Road:” So these are the ropes,/The tricks of the trade,/The rules of the road…She’s grave, resigned, bummed out and refined. (Carolyn Leigh) During “Sweet Talk” (Floyd Huddleston), the artist’s focus makes it seem as if thoughts are coming to her for the first time.
She and Hall also present an inviting duet of “Cheatin’” (Marilyn and Alan Bergman), part of a Song Cycle called “Portraits of Jazz.” Stritch tells us this is “a tribute to the nightclub scene when Coleman was coming up.” The wry lyric finds Hall as “his” mistress singing to “his” wife: I always thought that when he wasn’t with me, he must’ve been home with you. Apparently the musician has been two timing both of them. He works out every morning/Two shows a night/Plus that son of a bitch/ Is cheating on us…The ladies bond in betrayal and incredulity. Both vocalists enact the scenario with effective spirit.
Billy Stritch and Debby Boone
Debby Boone shines with “Here I Go Again” (Tommy Wolf) which sails by like a delicate milkweed pod on a light breeze, the unknown, “Pink Taffeta Sample Size Ten” (Dorothy Fields-cut from Sweet Charity) in which she inhabits girlish awe with porcelain clarity, and “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” (Joseph McCarthy, Jr. for a musicalization of The Heartbreak Kid) which is delivered with melancholy bitterness.
An unexpected vocal turn by bassist Jay Leonhart gives us the amusing “The Laarge Daark Aardvaark Song” –misspelling intentional- (Alan Sherman of “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” fame.) Anyone who’s heard Leonhart scat won’t be surprised he’s a master of cool understatement.
Billy Stritch’s pristine version of “It Amazes Me” (Carolyn Leigh), the show’s denouement, is slow and savored; surprised, grateful, abashed, and rather moving.
Stage Direction by Scott Faris suits both material and performers to a T.
Somewhere Mr. Coleman is beaming.
Performance Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Billy Stritch, Debby Boone, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli, La Tanya Hall
92Y Lyrics & Lyricists presents
Witchcraft- The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman
Billy Stritch Artistic Director
Andy Propst- Co-Writer
Scott Faris- Stage Director
Featuring Debby Boone, La Tanya Hall, Nicolas King, Gabrielle Stravelli
Jay Leonhart-Bass, Rick Montalbano-Drums
92Y Lexington Avenue
NEXT: Everything’s Coming Up Ethel-The Ethel Merman Songbook April 16-18