Sunday, March 13, 2022

Anyone Can Whistle (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

For a musical that flopped so spectacularly back in 1964, “Anyone Can Whistle” has certainly shown remarkable staying power. The one-night-only performance at Carnegie Hall under consideration here is its second such gala presentation in that hallowed house; the first was the 1995 GMHC benefit with Madeline Kahn, Bernadette Peters, and Scott Bakula, narrated by original star Angela Lansbury no less. 

Since then, there’s been an excellent 2010 Encores presentation with Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, and Raul Esparza; a Ravinia Festival outing in 2005 with Audra McDonald, Patti LuPone, and Michael Cerveris; and a recently released two-disc CD from Jay Records with Julia McKenzie, Maria Friedman, and John Barrowman. Much credit for the show’s endurance must go to record producer Goddard Lieberson for recording the show at Columbia despite the show’s cool critical reception and tepid box office. 

This week’s production headlined Vanessa Williams as villainous mayoress Cora; Elizabeth Stanley as idealistic Nurse Fay Apple; and Santino Fontana as the quixotic Dr. Hapgood, with orchestra under the commanding leadership of Artistic Director Ted Sperling. In his opening remarks, Sperling praised the late Stephen Sondheim as a “mentor, colleague, and friend.” The composer, he said, gave him his first Broadway break in the original production of “Sunday in the Park with George.” 

Beyond the production being a wonderfully fitting tribute to Sondheim so soon after his passing, it was clear that the show was an ideal fit for MasterVoices as there’s an abundance of orchestral music, with plenty of opportunity for choral work.

Experimental though the structure of the show may be, or once was, the score registers as one of Sondheim's most traditional in the Broadway mode. It’s the absurdist and cynical storyline that lacked appeal to audiences back in the day and, in spite of its legendary status, arguably still does now.

The plot has to do with Cora needing something to reinvigorate her bankrupt town with tourists and earn the people’s love. A (fake) miracle involving water from a rock provides the perfect gimmick for her and her principal henchman Comptroller Schub (Douglas Sills, excellent as always). When idealistic Nurse Fay Apple brings 50 of her “cookies” from the local asylum to the rock to effect a cure, Cora and Schub fear disclosure, and try to block her efforts. Fay joins forces with J. Bowden Hapgood, a new doctor in town (though, as we learn later, he’s, in fact, a “cookie” too).

Themes of conformity versus nonconformity, idealism, pragmatism, romanticism and so on are all part of Arthur Laurents’ fair-to-middling script, mercifully abridged with narration engagingly read by Joanna Gleason. But amidst all this, the songs are some of Sondheim’s very best. Cora’s Kay Thompson-inspired numbers: “Me and My Town” and “A Parade in Town”; Fay’s yearning “There Won’t Be Trumpets” and wistful  “Anyone Can Whistle”, and Hapgood’s rapid-fire “Everybody Says Don’t” and touching “With So Little to Be Sure Of.”

The cast was enthusiastically cheered by the sold-out house, but Stanley seemed to come out strongest on the applause meter with her incisive and sensitive delivery. She made every one of her songs special, and was delightful in her disguise as the “Lady from Lourdes” sent to investigate the veracity of the “miracle” with red wig, crimson gown and a French accent. And only in this outlandish getup could her character overcome inhibitions and succumb to Hapgood’s romantic attentions.

Fontana was predictably solid dramatically and musically, and rendered his two big numbers very beautifully, also duetting delightfully with Stanley on the faux French “Come Play Wiz Me.” Their French dialogue leading up to the song was amusingly framed with surtitles. (In the original production, the title machine was apparently an ongoing source of annoyance as it was continually breaking down.)

Williams - an accomplished Sondheim interpreter (e.g. “Into the Woods,” “Sondheim on Sondheim”) - was sensibly cast as Cora, but I felt her delivery was a bit soft-grained on this occasion, though she sang smoothly as ever, and deftly sparred with Stanley in the catty (and, like “Trumpets,” originally cut number)  “There’s Always a Woman.”

There was first-rate work too from Eddie Cooper as Treasurer Cooley, Michael Mulheren as Police Chief Magruder, and Mark Spergel as Dr. Detmold. 

The original production featured elaborate dances by Herb Ross. And here, even in the constricted concert space, JoAnn M. Hunter devised some nifty choreography for Williams’ Thompson-esque numbers while elsewhere, especially in the “Cookie Chase,” there was impressive hoofing from two female dancers (Esther Lee and Lindsay Moore) and Cora’s four boys (Mike Baerga, Dave Schoonover, Jaquez André Sims, and Matthew Stephens). Nicole Goldstein got a nice hand for her shimmering soprano solo in the second act. 

The whole was stylishly directed by Sperling who led the MasterVoices chorale and orchestra with his customary expertise and flair. 

(Carnegie Hall, 881 7th Avenue; March 10th only;

Photos by Nina Westervelt

(Top) (l.-r.) Eddie Cooper, Douglas Sills, Vanessa Williams, Michael Mulheren


(l.-r.) Elizabeth Stanley, Santino Fontana

(l.-r.) Ted Sperling, Vanessa Williams

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Zauber der Bohème (Austrian Cultural Forum)

By Harry Forbes

Back in 2020, I covered a press conference announcing the launch of an exhibit in Vienna under the auspices of the University of Music and Performing Art’s Exilarte project. Exilarte is dedicated to “preserve, rehabilitate and display the work of Austrian composers, musicians, and music researchers who deemed ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime. The exhibit presented a comprehensive overview of the superstar opera couple of the 1930s, Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura, who because of their mixed Jewish heritage, had to flee Europe for New York after the Anschluss.

Among the ancillary activities promised at the time was a restored version of the couple’s most famous film and a worldwide hit, “Zauber der Bohème (The Charm of La Bohème),” which was being outfitted with new English subtitles. (There’s a decent print you can see here on YouTube, but only with those dodgy “auto-generated” English subtitles.)

So in partnership with the Exilarte Center, New York’s Austrian Cultural Forum presented the film on February 24 for one night only at their 52nd Street headquarters, and it proved worth the wait. Introduced by ACF Director Michael Haider, the movie was all the more involving on the big screen, and the subtitles were, of course, a boon to a non-German audience.

After the screening, it’s no exaggeration to say there wasn’t a dry eye in the packed house. The film showed the couple at their best, as they played up and coming singers in Paris cast in Puccini’s opera whose real life story mirrors the opera’s plot. Though, as such, the narrative’s tragic climax is completely predictable, the impact is not a whit lessened. 

What struck me anew about the pair, apart from their impressive singing, was first, what a truly fine film actress Eggerth was, playing beautifully to the camera, and effortlessly telegraphing every emotion with subtlety. It is such a shame that her two MGM films with Judy Garland only barely scratched the surface of that talent. And Kiepura was such a likable and natural presence with his irrepressible exuberance, much like Lawrence Tibbett in his early Hollywood films, one could easily see why he was idolized by thousands. 

Very much adding to the specialness of the evening was the presence of the couple’s son, pianist Marjan Kiepura, and his wife Jane Knox-Kiepura, archivist for all things Eggerth/Kiepura related. After the film, they joined Haider for an intriguing panel discussion, though it took them several minutes to compose themselves after experiencing the film. Haider started things off by explaining how little by little their names appeared less and less in the press as the Nazis rose to power, despite their immense popularity, finally disappearing altogether. His fascinating remarks segued into Kiepura offering an intimate view of life at home with his illustrious parents who were always down-to-earth “real” people.

Adding to the frisson of the event was the fond remembrance of the many events Eggerth herself hosted at the Forum in years past. She died in 2013 at the age of 101 singing with remarkable skill right to the end. There's more to learn about Eggerth on the podcast "Marjan's Musical Soirees."

(Austrian Cultural Forum New York, 11 East 52nd Street; 212-319-5300 or

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Music Man (Winter Garden Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

New Yorkers have been passing the humongous Winter Garden orange and blue billboard touting Meredith Willson’s classic musical for the many long months of the pandemic shutdown, Now it’s opened at last with its gold-chip stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster intact, not to mention a large and especially lustrous supporting cast.

The city’s last major revival -- a very good one directed by Susan Stroman with Craig Bierko (eerily channeling originator Robert Preston in his vocals) and the late Rebecca Luker -- closed in 2001. But who could resist mounting it for Jackman who, as he has said, has had a lifelong ambition to play con artist Harold Hill?

I do feel that, on the whole, the Stroman production managed a more satisfying mixture of a fresh staging coupled with more fidelity to the heart of the traditional staging. Here, the creative team, including director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Wayne Carlyle (the team that staged the Bette Midler “Hello, Dolly!” revival, along with set designer Santo Loquasto), have determinedly set out for a revisionist approach. While they haven’t radically departed from the spirit of the long-running, award-winning 1957 original, the production does have a decidedly different feel.

For one thing, this is probably the most stylized, dance-heavy “Music Man” we’ve ever seen. The long-limbed Jackman is at least up to the task, gracefully executing all of Carlyle’s fancy footwork. And Foster as Marian, not traditionally a dancing role,  now gets to dance in the big Act 2 opener, “Shipoopi,” and a specially added tap dancing finale. Some of the choreography is admittedly clever, like the impressively coordinated book tossing in “Marian the Librarian.” But much of the staging seems overly busy. In his work for “Dolly,” Carlyle was at least adhering very closely to the original Gower Champion template.

Throughout, Jackman proves himself incredibly lithe and athletic. And he certainly has the measure of the part. Rather like Harry Hadden-Paton in the “My Fair Lady” revival, he sings the role more than traditional Hills, rather than using the more speak-sing delivery as it was written. Only in the climactic footbridge scene where he and Marion finally click and duet on “Till There Was You” and “Goodnight My Someone,” does his voice take on a somewhat pinched and nasal quality.

I didn’t care for the heavily stylized treatment of Hill’s opening “Ya Got Trouble.” Jackman’s dancing and the coordinated movements of the ensemble were well executed but seemed out of keeping with the dramatic situation of Hill subtly conning the Iowa townspeople. 

Foster is costumed and bewigged as the archetypal “spinster” of yore, Marian. She brings not only the aforementioned dancing skill, but deft comic timing, and impressive vocalizing, missing only the easy lustrous high notes of most past Marians. She and Jackman are a good match physically, and when she finally drops the brittle veneer, her tenderness to Jackman is most touching. 

A definite plus here is the deluxe casting of such dramatic heavyweights as Jefferson Mays as Mayor Shinn playing like a bumbling Frank Morgan, Jayne Houdyshell as his imperious wife Eulalie, Marie Mullen as Mrs. Paroo, all superb. Also outstanding are Shuler Hensley (who, interestingly, was Jud to Jackman’s Curly in the National Theatre “Oklahoma!”) as Marcellus, and Remy Auberjonois, the salesman determined to unmask Hill as a fraud. He gives his late scenes real dramatic power. Benjamin Pajak is an adorable lisping Winthrop. And there’s good work, too, from Gino Cosculluela and Emma Crow as young lovers Tommy and Zaneeta. 

The close harmony barbershop numbers were impeccably sung by Phillip Boykin, Nicholas Ward, Daniel Torres, and Eddie Korbich.

There’s been some unnecessary fiddling with the lyrics, most especially “Shipoopi,” with a feminist revision of the lyrics extolling those gals who play hard to get. 

Loquasto’s set -- Grant Wood inspired painted backdrops -- isn’t especially lavish, but does the job. Other production elements are in the top flight hands of Brian MacDevitt (lighting), Scott Lehrer (sound), and Patrick Vaccariello (musical direction). The new orchestrations are by Jonathan Tunick. 

Even with tweaks, “The Music Man” is, as ever, a fine show, and a radically innovative one too. Those who label it old-fashioned are missing the great achievement wrought by Meredith Willson who wrote music, lyrics and book. It’s not for nothing that the show trumped “West Side Story” in the Tonys.

Despite the attempts to purge the book of anything that would offend modern-day sensibilities, the show is still a delight, especially with megawatt talents like Jackman and Foster at the helm. And the audience responds with rapturous enthusiasm.

(Winter Garden Theatre, 1634 Broadway; or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Julieta Cervantes:

(Top) The cast of “The Music Man”

(Below) Hugh Jackman, Sutton Foster

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The Only Girl (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

For a work that, for all its cherishable qualities, can hardly be said to rate as one of Victor Herbert’s biggies such as “Naughty Marietta” or “Babes in Toyland,” it is all the more extraordinary that the recent presentation by Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live! was, in fact, the second New York production in seven years.

The 2015 LOONY production was, in many respects, a more than decent one, with a chamber orchestra ably conducted by Gerald Steichen, and a good cast roughly comparable to the one at hand. It even resulted in an enjoyable CD from Albany Records. However, both that production and recording were undercut by a misguided if well-intentioned new book. 

Leave it to VHRP and its artistic director, Alyce Mott, to set things right by presenting the show, some edits notwithstanding, in its original three-act form with Henry Blossom’s original narrative intact. 

What made “The Only Girl” so singular in 1914, delighting its contemporary critics, was its unique structure as a play with music. There are no extended finales or recitative or choruses: just songs where the plot allows them, and those songs are in a musical comedy vein, not in Herbert’s more familiar operetta style. The show was based on Helen Kraft’s 1912 play “Our Wives,” in turn adapted from an 1897 German comedy, “Jugendfreunde” by Ludwig Fulda. Critics were unanimously pleased with the Blossom-Herbert adaptation. And interestingly, “The Only Girl” was one of the few Herbert works to find favor in London. 

The story concerns Alan Kimbrough (aka “Kim”), a writer in desperate search of a composer with whom to collaborate on his upcoming operetta. When he hears the melodious strains of the show’s evergreen hit, “When You’re Away,” from the apartment below, he’s sure he’s found his man, only to soon learn the melodist is, in fact, a woman, Ruth Wilson (Joanie Brittingham). He and his three buddies nicknamed Corksey (Andrew Buck), Fresh (Jack Cotterell), and Bunkie (Jonathan Fox Powers) have recently sworn to abjure women.  While Kim’s too much of a male chauvinist to entertain the notion of collaborating with a woman, necessity propels him to overcome his reluctance, so he and “Wilson,” as he declares he will call her, will be strictly business partners, and work like two "machines." 

Of course, it isn’t long before his three friends break their vows and fall for women who, in short order,  become their wives: Jane (Alexa Devlin), Margaret (Sara Law), and Birdie (Hannah Holmes), and pretty bossy, domineering ones at that! By the third act, after much farcical business, it can’t be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Kim and Ruth finally recognize their mutual attraction.

Adding some comedy along the way are the antics of showgirl Patrice (aka Patsy) (Emily Hughes), who hopes for a role in Kim’s new operetta, and her actress girlfriends Ruby (Barbee Monk) and Violet (Mariah Muehler). (Even in this semi-staged performance, I did rather wish they, showgirls or not, had worn long dresses more suggestive of the period.) But they sang well, and at one point, Muehler executed a neat bit of juggling with scarves.

The second act has a lot of silly business involving Margaret taking shrill offense with the other wives when they gossip about her possibly dying her hair or wearing a wig.

With all these shenanigans involving the married couples and the showgirls, what should be the central story of Kim and Ruth gets rather shoved aside, so it’s no wonder LOONY had attempted to correct that imbalance. But I much prefer the authentic approach we had here. And we can appreciate how innovative the work must have seemed in its day.

The songs, when they come, are delightful. Among the tuneful highlights are the sextet for the three couples, “Connubial Bliss”; the husbands’ “When You’re Wearing the Ball and Chain” lament; the wives rebuttal  “Why Should We Stay at Home and Sew?”; and the rousing march, “Here’s to the Land We Love, Boys,” all very well delivered. It’s a rather odd circumstance that soubrette Patsy has more songs than Ruth, but Hughes had the voice to put them over.  

Under the sure baton of Musical Director Michael Thomas, the six-piece New Victor Herbert Orchestra played a reduction, not an adaptation (as Mott was careful to point out in her opening remarks), of Herbert’s orchestration. From the sprightly overture onwards, it was clear we were, as ever, in excellent musical hands.

The score seemed complete, only missing “Antoinette,” a brief number for a deleted showgirl character Renée.

VHRP regular Brittingham performed the big number nicely, but positioned as she was, upstage behind an upright piano, the song’s effectiveness was somewhat diminished. Devlin got the show’s second major waltz number, “Tell It All Over Again,” also starting behind the upright, but then at least, moved downstage to finish it. She and Holmes, the latter channeling Julie Halston, were particularly amusing as the pushy wives.  

Sapp seemed to have the lion’s share of dialogue on the male side and handled it exceedingly well, perhaps his most impressive outing yet for VHRP.  In fact, all the men were strong dramatically and vocally, starting with their close harmony rendition of “Be Happy Boys, Tonight.” 

I must not neglect the contribution of veteran performer David Seatter who, in the mostly non singing role of the butler Saunders, made his every moment count, as apparently did the role’s creator John Findlay. 

The audience at my performance responded warmly when Kim and Ruth finally got together at the end to sing the tender “You’re the Only One For Me.” And indeed, this inaugural production at VHRP’s new home at the Theater at St. Jeans attracted a good-sized, enthusiastic crowd. It's wonderful the company now has a proper orchestra pit and traditional stage, rather than having to perform against the backdrop of a church sanctuary. 

Though not a dancing show, Andrea Andresakis supplemented Mott’s direction with some effective staging of the group numbers. 

For those interested in hearing the score, there’s  the aforementioned Albany recording, and also a twin piano version from Comic Opera Guild with the songs in authentic order. 

Next up: the delightful “Mlle. Modiste” April 26 and 27

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 150 East 76 Street; Feb. 22 and 23; or

Top photo by Karen Hudson: (l.-r.) Joanie Brittingham, Christopher Robin Sapp

Below: Photos by Rachel Monteleone / @MontePhoteaux

(l.-r.)  Jonathan Fox Powers (Bunkie), Jack Cotterell (Fresh),  Andrew Buck (Corksey),

(l.-r.)  Alexa Devlin (Jane), Hannah Holmes (Birdie), Sara Law (Margaret)

(l.-r.) Barbee Monk (Ruby), Emily Hughes (Patsy), Mariah Muehler (Violet)