Encores!, the age-old series of musicals-in-concert at City Center, is most in its element when it can serve as a time machine. Through February 8 they’re mounting Lady Be Good, the oldest show they’ve ever done – 90 years young. And, effectively, we’re transported back to 1924. Earlier this year, George Gershwin premiered his Rhapsody In Blue and now comes a musical comedy with lyrics by his brother Ira, starring three of the top stars of the day, Fred Astaire, his more impressive sister Adele Astaire, and the uniquely talented Cliff Edwards, known as Ukulele Ike.
What fascinates me is how different the world of musicals, and entertainment in general, was back then. Audiences didn’t look to shows to tell a good story, but they did require good tunes they’d never heard before. How far we’ve come! Audiences today insist on a story they’ve seen before, usually as a movie, and don’t care if they get new tunes, hits from the oldies station will do. If audiences today prized originality, we’d get a higher percentage of original shows.
The brothers Gershwin never thought Lady Be Good particularly important or ground-breaking. It accomplished the goals of every musical of the era: providing ample opportunity for its marquee stars to do what they were so good at doing, run for a healthy length of time and also in London, and produce a couple of hit songs. Both looked back recalling the struggle to create Fascinating Rhythm, one of those hits, as they’d argued about where the stresses should go. Do writers today even discuss where the stresses should go? I hear so many contemporary theatre songs with acCENTS on the wrong sylLAble, I have my doubts.
With Encores’ original full-time conductor, Rob Fisher, back at the podium, we’ve the opportunity to relish the sound of a 30-piece orchestra, and luxuriate in the invigorating syncopations and ever-surprising harmonies of Gershwin’s music. There seems to be no limit to his inventiveness. And Ira is very often up to the challenges the score throws his way. Imagine having to find words for a tune in which every two bars contain exactly three notes. And remember, you have to keep it amusing:
When I leave-
Will you sigh?
I shall grieve-
So shall I…
Hope we meet by and by-
Funny thing–So do I…
I am poor-Me oh my!
That’s all right- So am I.
In one line, he can’t quite fit the sentiment into three, so there’s a funny truncation: “Don’t be sil- So am I!”
The song I’ve always admired most from this score is I’ve Got the You Don’t Know the Half Of It Dearie Blues, which spoofs how many song titles are just this or that blues (St. Louis, Basin Street, etc.). The verse is jam packed with quadruple rhymes:
Each time you trill a song with Bill or look at Will
I get a chill, I’m gloomy
I won’t recall the names of all the men who fall
It’s all appalling to me
Of course, I really cannot blame them a bit
For you’re a hit wher-e’er you flit
I know it’s so, but dearie, oh!
You’ll never know the blues that go right through me…
To Bill and Ben I’d pay attention now and then
But really men would bore me
When I’d begun to think I’d run and be a nun
I met the one man for me
And now just when the sun is starting to beam
Along comes a girl, zip goes a dream!
What will I do away from you?
I feel the future will be blue and stormy
Dense and dazzling rhyming like that has virtually disappeared from our theatre during my lifetime. And to say I’m miffed would be an understatement.
But you know what’s come back recently? Novelty ukulele-playing. This relatively easy-to-play instrument sounds and seems perilously close to being a child’s toy. And yet, delightfully, it’s showing up in pop music. So, that’s something to celebrate.
In 1924, one of the biggest stars on Broadway was a guy who played the ukulele like a virtuoso. He had a strange (to my ears) and high voice, and, on any recording, spends a lot of time using it to imitate other instruments. Think of a less cool Bobby McFerrin, full of homespun personality and charm. Cliff Edwards is most likely remembered today as Disney’s voice of Jiminy Cricket, but that was long after his period of stardom. The Gershwins, along with book-writers Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, knew the audience loved the Astaires and Edwards. So, Lady Be Good is constructed (if you can use that verb) to give a brother-and-sister dancing pair plenty of chances to dance, and Ukulele Ike a couple of chances to dazzle, alone on stage.
And, alas, here’s where Encores! makes a critical mistake. The sibling dancers are played by Danny Gardner and Patti Murin (she was Lysistrata Jones a few years ago) and they’re fine. But instead of a ukuleleist, they got the idiosyncratic tap star of yesteryear, Tommy Tune. So, you’re watching a show in which song after song is an opportunity for a spirited pas-de-deux, and, then, to break up the potential monotony, we get an older gentleman doing a low-energy tap. Look: I appreciate Tommy Tune as much as the next guy, but, to me, watching one tall man dancing doesn’t really provide any respite from watching normal-sized people dancing. As a result, the Encores! version of a show few of us are ever likely to see again, lags where it ought to soar. In the second act the plot (such as it is) stops so that the three stars can do two specialty numbers; with so little contrast between the two “specials” the charm fizzles, and you know 90 years ago it would have been just the opposite.