John Kander (1927-) and Fred Ebb (1928-2004) were introduced in 1962 and collaborated on their first Broadway musical, Flora the Red Menace (introducing Liza Minnelli) in 1965. Career highlights include the iconic may-run-forever Cabaret, successively revived Chicago- (both made into films), Lauren Bacall’s transition from film to theater in Woman of the Year, and the formidable Scottsboro Boys. The multifaceted team also wrote “New York, New York”, arguably our city anthem- the theme to Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film of the same name.
Certain music from Kander’s oeuvre is so evocative of memorable theater, it makes the hairs on one’s arm stand at attention. The Pop’s opening, Suite from Chicago does just that. Some of the audience bob in their seats or tap their feet, others mouth lyrics. More than an era or city, Kander and Ebb (here with Bob Fosse) captured an ethos of gleefully celebrated corruption uncomfortably familiar today. I suspect Cabaret continues to pack them in for the same reason. The shows are not just innovative and entertaining, they’re resonant.
John Kander in the balcony. To his right, director Susan Stroman
Tonight’s Guest Vocalists are both young Broadway veterans.
Cassie Leavy has a smooth, confident voice that can unfurl with moderation or belt, though she seems audibly more at home with the latter. She has stage presence. Results, however, are mixed: “Mein Herr” and “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret, lack pathos and bite. “Roxy” (Chicago) and “Everybody’s Girl” (Steel Pier) are missing their innately wicked play. One wonders whether the youthful performer understands the songs’ context.
More contemporary, ‘Ring Them Bells” (Liza with a Z) and “Colored Lights” (The Rink) fare better. Leavy embodies pluck and exasperation attributable to the first song’s protagonist. With the second, we feel hope and ambition as her voice lilts and loops with sweet, trailing vibrato.
Tony Yazbeck rushes through the terrific “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” (70 Girls, 70) -due to speedy arrangement that robs the number authenticity and delivers a couple of songs as Billy Flynn from Chicago, a role to which he’s imminently returning, with no discernible charisma.
Tony Yazbeck, Steven Reineke, Cassie Levy
Act II, however, sees a complete transformation. Yazbeck’s delicate “Sometimes a Day Goes By” (Woman of the Year) with only piano accompaniment, is eminently tender and touching. “You, You, You” (The Visit) follows suit with palpable yearning. Both of these showcase the performer’s emotional tenor. Yazbeck then offers this evening’s zenith, “City Lights” (The Act) during which, having infectious fun, he grows fully animated, even engaging in loosey goosey, complex tap dance.
In addition to a sassy overture, The New York Pops Orchestra excels with “Hot Honey Rag” (Chicago) which grins, twirls, and flips its hat in textured musical layers and a powerful, lush rendition of “The Minstrel March” (The Scottsboro Boys).
Music Director/Conductor Steven Reineke keeps us abreast of each song’s origin with a bit of amiable patter. At his suggestion, we sing “Happy Birthday” to John Kander, spot-lit in the balcony. Far from retired, the honoree’s Kid Victory (written with Greg Pierce) is playing at New York’s Vineyard Theatre. He’s now at work on The Beast of The Jungle, based on a novella by Henry James.
John Kander celebrates his 90th Birthday on March 18. We honor both his partnership and continuing high craft.
Photos by Richard Termine
Opening: Tony Yazbeck, Cassie Levy
NEXT for The New York Pops:
You’ve Got a Friend: A Celebration of Singers and Songwriters- April 21, 2017
Carnegie Hall presents
The New York Pops
Steven Reineke-Music Director and Conductor
Guest Artists: Cassie Levy, Tony Yazbeck
Life Is a Cabaret: The Songs of Kander and Ebb
As a fighter, Vinny Pazienza was no stranger to emergency rooms. The injury that almost ended his career didn’t happen in the ring, however, but as the result of a car accident. After sustaining a broken neck, doctors told him he might not walk and definitely would never fight again. Pazienza refused to give up and the result is the greatest comeback story in boxing history.
Bleed for This also represents a comeback for talented writer/director, Ben Younger. Once praised for the 2000 crime drama Boiler Room, Younger hasn’t made a film since 2005’s romantic comedy, Prime. With an intense performance by Miles Teller as Pazienza, Bleed for This enters the pantheon of great fight films. One of the best is, of course, Raging Bull, whose director, Martin Scorsese, is Younger’s executive producer.
In 1988, a day before a title match in Las Vegas, Vinny is in his hotel room, bound up in plastic wrap, pedaling furiously on a stationary bike, hoping to meet his weight requirement of 140 pounds. He shows up late for the weigh-in wearing nothing but a leopard print jock strap, and just makes the cut. Rather than rest, he stays up all night playing blackjack. It’s no surprise that he’s easily defeated.
Aaron Eckhart and Miles Teller
The boxing world quickly dumps losers and, with a string of three losses, Vinny struggles to find another match. His new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), comes with baggage of his own; he was fired as Mike Tyson’s trainer after being arrested for a DUI. Eckhart, in a memorable supporting role, is virtually unrecognizable as the bald, pot-bellied trainer. Rooney hasn’t stopped drinking, but he still knows what it takes to win. Rather than battle to keep off the pounds, Rooney suggests that Vinny box at his more natural weight of 154, which means moving up two categories.
The strategy works and Vinny is once again winning and scheduled for a title match in Las Vegas. Fate, however, takes a cruel turn. A horrific head on collision leaves Vinny with a serious spinal injury. When Vinny wakes up surrounded by his concerned Italian family, he tries to make light of his situation. Reality begins to sink in and, vowing to fight again, he agrees to wear a medal device called a halo that is held in place with four screws actually drilled into the skull. Younger doesn’t spare us the sight of watching that gruesome operation.
Vinny spends his days lying alone in a hospital bed in his parents’ living room. (A girlfriend leaves in a huff after getting her hair caught in his medal device.) While his parents supported his boxing – his father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), was literally in his corner for every fight – they don’t want him back in the ring. Vinny can’t see himself doing anything else and soon, joined by Rooney, is in the basement working out.
After three months, the halo is removed. This scene is more difficult to watch than the first since Vinny refuses anesthesia and screams with each screw that is removed. Back in the gym, he can’t find a sparing partner. No fighter wants to be the one to inflict what could be a killer blow. Once Vinny shows that he’s in shape, people begin to fall into line, including fight promoters Lou and Dan Duva (Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber) who know a good publicity “hook” when they see one. The fight they line up is a big one, with more than a million dollars for the winner.
Ciarán Hinds, Miles Teller, and Aaron Eckhart
There’s a buildup to that final fight scene and it doesn’t disappoint. Younger has said that the film was shot in three weeks on a shoestring budget, but it has the feel of a much larger film, thanks to all that expertly shot action in the ring. We hear and feel every blow that’s landed.
Vinny’s father attends the match and, despite saying he couldn’t be in his usual corner, eventually ends up in that spot cheering on his son. Meanwhile, the other relatives watch from home. Vinny’s mother, Louise (Katey Sagal), avoids the television and prays in an alcove before an altar crowded with statues of saints and burning candles. Vinny’s sister, Doreen (Amanda Clayton), watches with assorted relatives, bowls of popcorn on their laps. (All three actors playing members of the Pazienza family offer some comic relief with their zaniness without going over the top. Sagal is particularly effective as the ever-protective mother.) Kudos to set decorator Kim Leoleis for creating the type of overstuffed home environment that will resonate with many baby boomers, especially the Italian-American ones.
The film’s success rests with Teller, and he builds on his breakout performance as a drummer in Whiplash. As Vinny, he holds nothing back, whether inside or outside the ring. While the fight scenes are, at times, painful to watch, the scenes where he struggles with the halo, bumping against a car door, for example, may have you grabbing your own head.
Stay for the credits to see photos and interviews of Vinny Pazienza himself.
Bleed for This opens nationwide November 18, 2016.
Photos by Seacia Pavao courtesy of Open Road Films