For Fans of Jerome Kern, a Religious Experience

PlayBlog   For Fans of Jerome Kern, a Religious Experience
The sold-out Nov. 15 Merkin Hall presentation of the conceptual concert All the Things You Are: Jerome Kern, part of the Broadway Close Up series there, proved that any New York City theatre season that lacks the music of Kern — the composer regarded as the father of modern musical theatre — is a poorer one. Songs by Kern (1885-1945) should be on the lips (or in the music-machines) of everyone who cares about theatre music and American pop. Merkin Hall, for 90 minutes, became "The Land Where the Good Songs Go," to steal a Kern-P.G. Wodehouse title.

Leave it to the gifted music director/arranger David Loud (currently represented on Broadway by his rapturous vocal arrangements for The Scottsboro Boys) to pick Kern up, dust him off and start him spinning all over again in the imaginations of 21st-century fans of show music. Loud — who served as musical director, vocal arranger and co-conceiver for this Kern-ucopia — went far back into the master's catalog to tell the wisp of a story of three couples, from innocence to experience. There is no dialogue, just thoughtfully picked songs that suggest relationships, tension and change.

Kern obscurities including "The Subway Express" (lyric by James O'Dea), "An Irish Husband" (lyric by M.E. Rourke), "Nesting Time in Flatbush" (Wodehouse) and more conjure flirtation and courtship; a simple costume change takes us to wartime and maturity (the rueful "The Last Time I Saw Paris" by Oscar Hammerstein II); the original P.G. Wodehouse lyric of "Bill" (an earlier version of the Show Boat song, before Hammerstein finessed it) morphs into the little-known "Bill's a Liar" (lyric by Rourke) in a segment that shows the ache of lovers dividing.

Paired up were Tony nominee Rebecca Luker (The Music Man, Show Boat) and Graham Rowat (LoveMusik, Dracula, Guys and Dolls); Tony nominee Kate Baldwin (Finian's Rainbow, Wonderful Town) and Matthew Scott (Sondheim on Sondheim, Jersey Boys); and Heidi Blickenstaff ([title of show],The Little Mermaid) and Colin Donnell (Tales of the City for ACT and Johnny Baseball for ART).

With direction and movement by Denis Jones (Legally Blonde, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) the un-miked piano-and-voice concert swayed like a musical. The cheers from the audience seemed to encourage a wider life for the piece. (For the record, the concert was a departure from the usual Close Up shows that usually feature speakers, interviews and songs.)

Is there a future for this Kern turn? PlayBlog caught up with Loud the day after. He told us, "The show was a complete joy to create and rehearse, and, with that stunning cast, I would love to see it live on in some form — an Off-Broadway run in a charmingly small house? I'm a big fan of using unamplified sound for this project. I, of course, am a music director, not a producer, so I've been hoping that this concert would spark some interest."

The intermissionless show has its roots in an earlier Loud-shaped workshop production called The Land Where the Good Songs Go featuring students at Catholic University.

"All the musical arrangements are mine, of course, as are the song juxtapositions, segues, and musical flow of the piece, but the structure of it was created in collaboration with Edwin Wilson, Stafford Arima and Christopher Gattelli," Loud explained. "One of my initial inspirations for the show was the discovery of the song 'Bill's a Liar,' which made me wonder about how we could create a scenario that included both 'Bill' and 'Bill's a Liar.' Our goal was to create individual characters and chart their relationships and dramatic journeys using only Kern's vast catalog of songs — no dialogue — in a way that gives every song a strong dramatic context."

Pianist Jihwan Kim made the most of the Steinway on Monday, but Loud told us that a six-piece orchestration for the Catholic University workshop exists.

The to-die-for vocal arrangements included dazzling harmonies, and the sort of whistling, humming and ahhhh-ahhh-ahhhh vocals that nobody seems to do anymore. Among the evening's highlights: A beguiling "In the Heart of the Dark" (lyric by Hammerstein) sung by Baldwin and Blickenstaff, dreaming of their men; a haunted "Go, Little Boat" (lyric by Wodehouse), a rumination on seeking a mate til journey's end, featuring a luminous soprano Luker; Baldwin bringing the house down with the funny and sad "Bill"; Baldwin and Scott's breathless "They Didn't Believe Me" (lyric by Herbert Reynolds) duet, underlining that grateful feeling of being chosen by someone; Rowat and Luker's quirky comic turns "Let's Begin" (lyric by Otto Harbach), "We're Crooks" (Wodehouse) and "Ain't It Funny?" (lyric by Gene Buck); Rowat's reassuring finale "Look for the Silver Lining" (lyric by Bud DeSylva); Blickenstaff lamenting "A Fine Romance" (lyric by Dorothy Fields); Scott's pained, edge-of-the-stage "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (Harbach); Donnell and Blickenstaff's "Nobody Else But Me" (Hammerstein) duet; and Donnell's triumphant "All the Things You Are" (Hammerstein).

In the "dancing" medley, it doesn't get any better than "Heaven in My Arms," the Kern-Hammerstein number that includes the line, "If this is love, what a way to start/Heaven my arms/Music in my heart."

Married couple Baldwin and Rowat will have a little heaven in their arms soon. Wearing a chic and slimming navy dress with dark hose in the concert, Baldwin could nevertheless no longer conceal the happy reality that she's expecting. Baldwin and Rowat said she's due come springtime. Talk about your silver lining!

See's photo coverage of the concert here.

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