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Broadway's own Betty Comden and Adolph Green used to trot around a delectable act they called A Party With Comden and Green. 54 Below is currently presenting — for three nights only — what could well be called A Party With Ahrens and Flaherty. Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, that is, who are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their collaboration with Nice Fighting You. (The title plays on the song "Nice," from Lucky Stiff.)
What seemed to be a simple format — a group of friends stopping by to sing songs they performed in various Ahrens and Flaherty musicals — became unexpectedly complicated. The group of devoted performers and friends ballooned to 17, including a full dozen Tony winners or nominees. With the songwriters on stage accompanied by a band of five, there is scarcely room for another body or two at a time.
The solution has been to divide the talent among six two-night performances, with a half-dozen or so on hand for each. (The space is so tight that the singers march out before the show and sit in a sort of bullpen aside the stage — and wouldn't you want to hear the conversation at that table?) Thursday's late show, the second of six, featured 14 numbers. Musical director Ted Sperling, who leads the expert, hand-picked band, entioned that with so many actors coming in to sing their "personal" Ahrens and Flaherty material, they have had to rehearse 40 different songs. Everything musical went perfectly, thanks to Sperling's long association with the team and the protean work of young orchestrator Neil Douglas Reilly.
This unusual situation worked out exceedingly well, and will most certainly result in a capital combination of talents at all performances. Nice Fighting You turned out to be a parade of highlights. Last night, these included Liz Callaway singing a new song, "Raining" (from Rocky); Sean McCourt with the stunningly atmospheric "Streets of Dublin" (from A Man of No Importance); an uproarious Mary Testa doing "Rita's Confession" from Lucky Stiff, with Flaherty himself singing the role of Rita's hapless brother; Kecia Lewis raising the roof with "Green Eggs and Ham" (from Seussical); and Brian Stokes Mitchell topping them all with "Wheels of a Dream," which he introduced so memorably in Ragtime. An unexpected highlight was Stephanie J. Block's rendition of a dazzling new Ahrens and Flaherty song, "Ballerina." This comes from Little Dancer, a musical suggested by the iconic Degas sculpture which will be produced at Kennedy Center next fall.
The heart of the act, irrespective of the particular performers, is Ahrens and Flaherty. They serve as gracious and appreciative hosts, duly proud of their work but at the same time thrilled and delighted by the powerful performances from their various friends. Stokes summed it up glibly but succinctly while introducing his final song last night: "they put the art in heart."