Broadway by the Year Created/Written/Hosted by Scott Siegel. Directed by Scott Coulter.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...who can ask for anything more."
Opening the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Mainstage summer series is a review of the musical theater in two key years in the history of the musical form: 1930 and 1964. The result of a long series of single year presentations at New York City’s Town Hall, this compilation of two different sort of seasons presents an uneven picture of the show music that pervaded those years.
For 1930 only seven of 30 musicals provides the material for the local version of the show. For 1964 six shows put in an appearance. With narration by Scott Siegel this is still an almost two hour evening of entertainment. Missing are many of the minor gems that gave those seasons the peculiar glimmer they still have in the heart and soul of musical theater afficionados.
The 1964 roster of represented shows consists of Fiddler on the Roof, High Spirits, Anyone Can Whistle, Funny Girl, I Had a Ball and Hello, Dolly! while the 1930 group includes Girl Crazy, The New Yorkers, Three’s a Crowd, Simple Simon, Nina Rosa, The 9:15 Revue and Strike Up the Band. We have the Gershwins, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Jerry Herman, Rodgers and Hart, Sigmund Romberg, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Bock and Harnick and Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.
Among the missing are Fade Out, Fade In with a wonderful Jule Styne/Comden and Green score, Strouse and Adams’ Golden Boy, the Marilyn Miller starrer Smiles, Fine and Dandy by George Gershwin’s girlfriend Kay Swift, the Italian import Rugantino, Bajour - the gypsy musical with Chita Rivera, Flying High, Simple Simon, and the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt 110 in the Shade, to name but a few - you can decide which ones belong to which years.
Hit songs like Vincent Youman’s "Time on my Hands," DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s "Thank Your Father," Harry Warren’s "Would You Like to Take a Walk?" and great unknown gems such as Oscar Levant’s "Is it Love?," Styne’s "There’s Only One Step Further Down You Can Go" and "A Room Without Windows" are missed, but of course we understand that in the interest of time, many things must be overlooked and, in reality, this show is only a representation of the actual Broadway by the Year concerts during which only one year is brought to light rather than two.
What we have, instead, is a sweet way to pass the time. It is pretty to watch, lovely to listen to, and does prompt the song-sense memory.
The cast of four includes creator Scott Siegel who narrates, with humor and facts, from downstage left, singers Christiane Noll and Kerry O’Malley and director/performer Scott Coulter as the man. Ross Patterson is the orchestra, or piano really, for this edition. Patterson plays wonderfully, supplementing the emptiness surrounding the piano with arrangements that flesh out the normally simple accompaniment. The show is truly as much his as it is anyone’s for his work is to complement and bring out the best in his singers.
The two women generally do well in their solos, although Noll tends to scoop notes far too often to be acceptable, often coming in under pitch on the entry note she uses to move on up the scale to the written key-changed bars of music. When she is at her best she is terrifically engaging, particularly in "Ribbons Down My Back" from "Hello, Dolly!" which she sings facing upstage away from the audience. When she is at her least interesting, in a number like "Music That Makes Me Dance" from "Funny Girl" she is hard to take.
O’Malley is genuinely engaging. Her more clarion voice, strident when she needs that quality but soft and cooing at other times, is quite a wonderful instrument."Home, Sweet Heaven" is a rip-roaring "gas of a, gas of a gas" number for her. So is "Ten Cents a Dance."
Both women are terrific in the trios they sing with Coulter.
The same can be said for him; his voice blends naturally and seductively with the women’s voices. His solos are sometimes quite impossible. Here is a lyric tenor who’ voice verges on the Castrato or church soloist more often than not. As the only male on stage, he is charged with singing tunes that just do not work well in the vocal range he maintains. When he strays into female territory with "Body and Soul" whose originator Libby Holman had a deeper, darker voice, or "People" from "Funny Girl" which misses the gutsy Streisand vocal range to really make it deep. He blends beautifully with the two women, as noted, but there is no "male" element in the music which is much needed in a show, any show, featuring the finest of Broadway songs.
There’s not much physical production. A single costume for Act One (it is the depression) and a few changes in the flush ‘60s. Matthew Adelson’s pretty colored lights do very little to work the musical moments and sometimes are just downright distracting. Janie Bullard does a fine job with the sound. A key to the success of the series, and to this show, have been the "unplugged" moment where the audience hears the voices live and in person without amplification, just the way audiences in 1930 and 1964 did much of the time. As a finale to this evening, this is a wonderful choice and the a capella trio does a wonderful version of "Hello, Dolly!" which brings the evening to a perfect conclusion.
Okay, the summation: was it interesting? Yes. Was it well done? Well..... Was it worth spending the money to see? That depends on how much you love this music and how much tolerance you have for the performance qualities described above. I’m glad I saw it; it will give me much talk about for a while. There will be good things said and bad things as well. It is nice, however, to have this series in our territory to remind us of the treasure-trove of shows we have yet to see on our local stages.
Kerry O'Malley; photo: Jaime Davidson
Scott Coulter; photo: Jaime Davidson
Christiane Noll; photo: Jaime Davidson
Broadway by the Year plays at the Berkshire Theatre Festival through June 27. The theater is located on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. For ticket prices and performance schedules call the box office at 413-298-5536, ext. 33 or consult their website www.berkshiretheatre.org.