Britney Coleman and
Carolee Carmello Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
By Jeanne Lieberman
Encores! Series, burst upon the scene twenty five years ago on a snowy week in February, 1994 with a staged concert production of Fiorello! It was
immediately sold out, so, when a blizzard shut down many modes of
transportation, an intrepid group of New Yorkers, spurred on by the lure of
cancelled and available seats, trudged on foot, cross country skis, hitched
rides on rogue buses, who stopped mid street to pick up stragglers gratis, to
the theater where they found a camaraderie of 400 like minded theater fans. I
was lucky to get the last ticket, in the mezzanine, next to an elderly columnist
from the New York Times whom I helped home afterwards.
And here one should mention the special and integral element
of any Encores! production - the audience! – a highly cultured group, many as vintage as the
musicals, having seen the originals and thrilled to revisit them, who arrive at each of the limited performances self congratulatory
about their good fortune and expert planning or just plain luck, exhilarated at
sharing a rarified experience. So, even when mildly disappointed, no one ever
complains about being there
contributes to a perfect theater experience. And it’s a perfect experience for
the performers as well as they revel in the novel experience of singing in
front of the orchestra instead of over them as traditionally in the pit. And
what orchestrations they are as music director/conductor Rob Berman’s
painstaking research led a happy conglomeration of no less than 30 musicians
delivering that great and unique “Broadway sound” of shows mostly from the 60’s.
could be more tantalizing than one “overlooked” show from the past?
shows from the past!
this audience Artistic Director Jack Vertex conceived the experimental idea to
dedicate the evening to several and not just one musical in an effort to
satisfy the demands of many for more musicals, with snippets of eight instead
of one whole. (To be perfectly frank, many of the old shows on the Encores!
roster had pretty dippy plots even in their abbreviated versions)
were twenty more or less familiar songs from eight musicals of lesser or
greater familiarity with only the barest hint of the time period and plot and
possible significance. Director Marc Bruni met the challenge to keep his 30
plus cast at a brisk pace. Affable Bob Martin, in the guise of his memorable
role as Man in the Chair from Drowsy Chaperone, nimbly provided a guided
tour, which he himself wrote, providing some connectivity to the
disparate numbers to appease “an opinionated Encores! subscriber who’s
disappointed that we haven’t done any of these musicals”.
was a palpable buzz of excitement thanks to set designer Allen Moyer’s idea to
festoon the curtain with 20 Encores! Playbills from the past and the
reminder that they are celebrating 25 years, and then, as curtain ascended,
additional playbills on all remaining walls of the stage
the show’s title song and opener “Hey Look Me Over” aptly states the Encores!
mission to re-examine the merits of worthy musicals not likely to be seen
that famous box of candies, not all are great; three songs from Milk and Honey
a tad too sweet, an overlong segment from Greenwillow, ( “the lesser of
the Frank Loesser shows”) perhaps an homage to his widow Jo who is often present
and a generous contributor to the series, and
an odd appearance by crowd favorite Vanessa Williams who, as presented, seemingly
burst in with little introduction delivering two songs from Jamaica.
advantage and big plus to Encores! productions is its ability to snare
some top talents who can only spare a week to learn and perform some great
numbers without a long term commitment. Included in the illustrious assemblage
were legendary Broadway veterans such as, in no particular order, Douglas Sills
knocking it out of the park as Mack Sennet in an ode to the silents when
“Movies Were Movies” (Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel), Reed Birney who
proved that a great versatile actor can do anything in his first ever musical
as the humble yet brilliant immigrant professor in “What A Country” and then in
the wistful, almost love duet with sweet, soaring voiced Judy Kuhn in the
tender “Once Upon a Time” (Strouse & Adams’ All American). Marc
Kurdish bellowing out "Shalom" in his strong baritone (Herman’s Milk
and Honey), Vanessa Williams inserting sensuality into “Push De Button” (Harold
Arlen’s Jamaica), spunky Carolee Carmello launching the evening with the
title song (Cy Coleman’s Wildcat), guaranteed show stopper Bebe Neuwirth
with her many encores in “Why do the Wrong People Travel" (Noel Coward's Sail
Away) and versatile Nancy Opel picking up the slack whenever needed.
Bebe Neuwirth &
in this constellation were some brilliant new talents like Alexandra Socha
captivating in “Look What Happened to Mabel” (Mack & Mabel), Clifton
Duncan breaking hearts in “Never Will I Marry” (Green Willow) and multi
talented Clyde Alves’ exuberant song and tap number and show finale “Give My
Regards to Broadway” (George M!) as a prime example of how Denis Jones choreography
can enhance a number. (Joel Grey made a surprise appearance reprising his role
as George M Cohan one night which brought the house down).
is hard to discern the theme of the evening: starting with and ending with 2 show
biz anthems “Hey Look Me Over” and “Give My regards to Broadway, and a
direct and indirect respect for immigration (or are we all desperately seeking
that everywhere?): the obvious All American, Jamaica, or the reverse -
Americans abroad (Milk & Honey, Noel Coward’s Sail Away); the
pioneering spirit of Green Willow and Wildcat to the ultimate paean
to early Hollywood Mack & Mable.
Douglas Sills &
holds these bon bons together is the box itself, Encores! ineffable
adoration and respect for our national treasure, the American musical.
that in show biz more is better, as the final applause subsided, was the show’s
surprise delight, the paean to the Statue of Liberty in a song created by America’s most ardent immigrant, Irving Berlin, to Emma Lazarus’ famous inscription. Timelier
can look forward to Encores! return to traditional format in their next production:
Hotel, The Musical
Mar 21—25, 2018
Me and My Girl
May 9—13, 2018
131 W. 55th St.