York Theatre’s 108th Musicals in Mufti, Hallelujah Baby!, was an attempt by its four liberal authors to put salve on race torn America. It won the Best Musical Tony Award in 1968 and made a star of young Leslie Uggams. In 2004, feeling its take on the black experience had been too soft, book writer Arthur Laurents endeavored to rectify this for a revival with changes in script and additional lyrics by Adolph Green’s daughter, Amanda Green. The story remains sketchy, but has perhaps removed its rose colored glasses.
Georgina (Stephanie Umoh) shepherds us through one African American woman’s history from 1910 to 1960 (with epilogue). Neither she nor other characters age outwardly (she’s 25), but all must deal with societal change affecting thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Stephanie Umoh and Tally Sessions
Mamma was a slave. (Vivian Reed with attitude, spot-on timing and splendid vocals.) She accepts her role as a cleaning lady, even putting on exaggerated accent and obeisance to please those for whom she works. Rules are clear, expectations minimal. Her daughter neither “cringes nor shuffles” sufficiently. Georgina is a proud rebel. She wants her “own morning,” bed, man…Sweetheart Clem (a sincere Jarran Muse), puts weekly money towards a house whose price rises every time they almost have enough. Her life seems mapped.
Unexpectedly approached by a white man – Harvey (Tally Sessions) who’s putting on a play at the local Bijou Theater, Georgina finds herself ironically cast as exactly the kind of maid she’s refused to be in real life. Still, it’s a role, she’s earning her own money and, for the first time, perceives a way out. When the white theater owner (Michael Thomas Holmes, terrific as a wide variety of distinctively realized characters) objects to a black woman onstage, Harvey quits. Not only is he completely without prejudice, he’s sweet on her.
Tally Sessions, Vivian Reed, Jarran Muse
Through the years, Harvey and Clem move from profession to profession while competing for the feisty, ambitious Georgina – not the most likeable heroine you’ll ever meet. She puts vociferously them both off – Clem because he often doesn’t approve of her choices and never seems to offer enough, and the utterly selfless Harvey because she sees the impossibility of an interracial couple- and really, still loves Clem. Mamma, who tags along with her daughter’s upward mobility, never lets go of her own cynical views.
There’s bigotry/segregation, gambling, bootlegging, performing in feathers, squatting in an abandoned Chinese restaurant, entering theaters by the back door, the WPA – including musical Shakespeare, breadlines, Communism, USO work (still segregated), the first time someone address Georgina as “m’am”, an apartment with a river view, the Civil Rights Movement, performing at The White House…
In a larger sense, the musical is about realizing who your bretheren are and taking responsibility.
Also featuring Randy Donaldson, Bernard Dotson Jennifer Cody (who adds spark) and Latoya Edwards
Stephanie Umoh has a powerful, clear voice. The actress is convincingly frustrated, selfish and aggressive. She seems to add pith to the show that Uggams didn’t possess.
Tally Sessions’ Harvey is believable from the get-go. The actor brings authenticity to every speech, glance, and song. He has fine vocal style and is thoroughly appealing.
Director Gerry McIntyre is adept with both vivacity and gravitas. Choreography is appropriate and fun; emotional moments theatrically credible. Southern accents land.
Photos by Ben Strothmann
Opening: Jarran Muse, Vivian Reed, Stephanie Umoh
Musicals in Mufti NEXT:
February 10-18 Bar Mitzvah Boy Don Black/Jule Styne
February 24-March 4 Subways Are For Sleeping Betty Comden/Adolph Green/ Jule Styne
The York Theatre Company’s Musicals in Mufti presents
Music-Jule Style; Lyrics-Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Additional Lyrics-Amanda Green
Book- Arthur Laurents
Directed by Gerry McIntyre
Music Direction/Piano- David Hancock Turner; Bass- Richie Goods
Through Sunday February 4, 2018
619 Lexington Avenue at St. Peter’s Church
And so they gather once again like migrated birds instinctively drawn to the annual Cabaret Convention, the smorgasbord of an art still beloved. From all over the country, hotels are booked, other shows ticketed. Some out of town attendees meet only once a year on this occasion, while local denizens take the opportunity to greet favorite artists and compare opinions. The 27th edition of the celebratory event boasts a 15 year-old newcomer as well as performers from London and Australia. Buzz is palpable.
KT Sullivan by Maryann Lopinto
Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation/Host, KT Sullivan, opens the show with a high, light version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Tonight, she might be singing about the audience or the extraordinary fascinator perched on her chignon. (Piano-Jon Weber, Bass- Steve Doyle, Drums- Rob Garcia)
Next we’re treated to Robert Creighton who must run to the theater where he’s starring in his own co-written musical Cagney. “No matter what your political leanings, sometimes it’s hard to see how great this country is.” Creighton performs George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” unfathomably without dancing. Renditions are easy, slightly nasal, with apt Cagney inflection. (MD/piano- Matt Perri)
Highlights of the evening follow.
Josephine Bianco; Kelly McDonald by Maryann Lopinto
A finalist at both the Metrostar and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Academy competitions, 15 year-old Josephine Bianco offers Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “People” displaying all the right instincts. The performer takes her time, looks into audience faces, and imbues the number with both personal expression and subtle modulations. Someone to watch.
Burgeoning artist, Kelly McDonald, introduces one of the evening’s few contemporary numbers, “Latte Boy” (Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich). Her vocal is lovely, character embodiment innocent and credible. Kudos to the appealing McDonald for taking a risk. (Piano on both-Jon Weber)
Stacy Sullivan; Natalie Douglas by Stephen Sorokoff
From new CD Stranger in a Dream, we hear Stacy Sullivan’s deft, airbrushed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Don George/Johnny Hodges/ Harry James) and a well rendered swing selection in which the vocalist shifts octaves like an aerialist (MD/piano-Jon Weber).
The surprising opening of Act II is a buoyant “Helpless” (Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton) featuring Karen Oberlin, KT Sullivan, Natalie Douglas as Eliza and Jon Weber- rapping! (MD/piano-Jon Weber). Douglas is then palpably surprised by winning the Donald F. Smith Award endowed by Adela and Larry Elow. Her interpretation of Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is beautifully understated. (MD/piano- Mark Hartman)
Vivian Reed and Dancers by Stephen Sorokoff
Broadway’s Vivian Reed unleashes “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey) as a full production number replete with choreographed backup dancers and bebop scat followed by a gospel “Believe” (admirably without overshooting the mark), which visibly courses through her. (MD/Piano-William Foster McDaniel)
Kristoffer Lowe’s jaunty, tandem “A Quarter to Nine” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) and “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing” segues from stylish to infectiously happy. Lowe is old school classy. Making his Convention debut, the immensely elegant, decidedly decadent Kim David Smith captivates in English and pristine German with renditions of “Illusions” and “Eine Kleine…” (Piano-Tracy Stark)
Kristoffer Lowe; Kim David Smith by Maryann Lopinto
Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is married to Amanda McBroom’s poignant “Dance” by Susan Winter who takes us with her on every emotional journey. Shimmering arrangement by MD/pianist Alex Rybeck. The reliably show-stopping Carole J. Bufford erupts into “St. James Infirmary” with powerful vocal from chest to throat, growl to howl, sinuous moves, and a command of the stage we rarely see. (Matt Baker-piano, Tom Hubbard-bass, Rob Garcia-drums, Charlie Coranics- superior Trumpet)
Maureen McGovern is appreciatively presented this year’s Mabel Mercer Award. The artist then sings two immensely original takes on numbers from The Wizard of Oz (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg): a charming preface of “Optimistic Voices” (You’re out of the woods…) leads to an a capella and acoustic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which one can only call indelible. Showcasing her range, McGovern then delivers an ardent, “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) with an entirely different voice. Wow. (MD/Piano-Jeff Harris)
Maureen McGovern by Stephen Sorokoff
Also featuring: Two Randy Newman songs from Karen Oberlin-one appealingly shadowy, the other, a dissonantly paired political ditty (Piano-Jon Weber); T. Oliver Reid’s bubbly “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight” by Cole Porter (MD/Piano-Larry Yurman); A warm Fran Landesman/Alec Wilder number from Barbara Fasano who makes us empathize with every sentiment (Piano-Eric Comstock); Stephan Bednarczyk’s angry take on Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” which defangs implicit wit…
Jacob Storms, whose voice is like an articulated hum, chooses two iconic songs on which he unfortunately leaves no personal stamp. (Piano-Jon Weber) Eric Yves Garcia’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’m A Gigolo” emerges vocally forced instead of insouciant, though the artist is capable of the latter. It should be noted, to my knowledge, this is the first time superb performer Leslie Hutchenson,“Hutch,” has been mentioned on the Convention stage. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend research.
Barbara Fasano; Matt Baker by Stephen Sorokoff
Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” is evocatively performed by Matt Baker including breathy vocal and arrangement that sounds like fine, 1950s jazz. (Bass-Endea Owens, Drums-Darrian Douglas) He’s less successful with an over long, dense interpretation of the theme from The Apartment (Charles Williams.) Crowd pleaser Christina Bianco safely repeats her Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” turn for the umpteenth time, imitating such as Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. The talented vocalist might consider moving on. (Piano-Jon Weber)
Thanks to Steve Doyle and Ron Hubbard, bassists, Rob Garcia-drums.
The evening ran a long 2 ½ hours, but offered many rewarding performances.
Three to go. Information and tickets for October 20 & 21: www.mabelmercer.org
Opening Photo: Carole J. Bufford by Maryann Lopinto
The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents
The 27th New York Cabaret Convention: Opening Night
Hosted by KT Sullivan
Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater
October 18, 2016