Though it's been recorded by Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and even The Beach Boys, "Ol' Man River" is the kind of song that really requires a specific type of performer in order to be done right.The most important American song since "Yankee Doodle" and the main theme of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's epic musical drama Show Boat, "Ol' Man River" depicts the character Joe, a supposedly free black American in the reconstructing south who sees no hope of advancing beyond his life as a stevedore, loading and unloading heavy cargo to and from ships for cruel white bosses.He is uneducated but philosophical, seeing the Mississippi River as this unfeeling natural wonder that helps white people prosper off his sweat and pain.The lyric demands the presence of a powerfully built black man who can convey his misery with dignity and spirituality, while the music demands a commanding basso.
Doing a tribute to Jerome Kern without using "Ol' Man River" is quite unthinkable, but on the opening night of Town Hall's Second Annual Broadway Cabaret Festival, that was the option creator/writer/host Scott Siegel was facing.By no fault of his own, Michael Bell, a Tony nominee for playing Joe in Show Boat's most recent Broadway revival, was stuck in transit and about four hours before showtime it was confirmed he would not be arriving.
The company started making phone calls, desperate to find someone to fill in for this high-profile event.Near the very end of the show, Siegel explained the situation to the audience and introduced a man unlikely to be known by many in the packed auditorium, Roosevelt Andre Credit.
Though a mountainous man, Credit entered unobtrusively, dressed in character and already displaying the weariness of a soul that keeps pushing forward toward a reward impossible to see.Throughout his career Credit has sung this song, either in concert or in productions of Show Boat, numerous times.After the performance he told me how his interpretation always changes according to the director's vision and the actors he performs with.On stage at Town Hall, it was apparent that this was an artist who has explored this character from every possible angle.There was total silence from the house watching Joe imitating the violent orders of "da boss man" and holding back tears as he begs to be shown "da River Jordan."It was a performance with both great power and great subtlety, tremendously nuanced and indelibly memorable.Credit was thanked with the most spontaneous standing and cheering ovation I've ever seen.The night after the New York Mets were eliminated from baseball's playoffs because they couldn't get that one clutch hit, Roosevelt Andre Credit smacked one clear out of the park.
And yet, even if these grand dramatics did not take place, Music In The Air: A Tribute to Jerome Kern, directed and choreographed by Mindy Cooper, was still a vocally dazzling evening, full of the sophistication and taste that we've come to expect from Scott Siegel and Town Hall.
Why Kern?Siegel explained in his opening remarks that Kern doesn't seem to be sung or recorded very often these days.But he was an extremely important figure, continuing the work of George M, Cohan in the early 20th Century, in helping this country's popular songs and musical theatre break away from European traditions into something uniquely American.His earliest hit, "They Didn't Believe Me" was presented in captivating fashion by Nancy Anderson, whose fluttery soprano and delicate sincerity elegantly took the audience back to 1914.
But not every song was performed in traditional fashion.Cady Huffman's take on "Bill", for example, emphasized the light comedy typical of its original lyricist, P.G Wodehouse, playing up the humor of a women surprised to find that her "perfect lover" was nothing like what she expected.Ron Bohmer began "Till The Clouds Roll By" as a charm ballad, and then jazzed up the second chorus with featured clarinetist Jack Stuckey.His rich-voiced "Why Was I Born?" was a dramatic highlight.
Michael Winther, whose voice seems to carry its own smoky atmosphere, supplied graceful renditions of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Yesterdays", while the strong vocal purity of Stephen Bogardus delighted with "All The Things You Are" and "Long Ago (And Far Away)."
Leslie Kritzer's raunchy jazz riffs heated up the place in "I'd Be Hard To Handle" while Deven May displayed versatility with a traditional leading man "Make Believe" and a puckish "I Didn't Say Yes."
Joyce Chittick and Sean Martin Hingston made for a hilarious song and dance pair in the comic turn "When We Get Our Divorce" and a pair of new moms, the sweet sopranoed Carolyn Montgomery and the chocolatey altoed Julie Reyburn were matched for a lovely "I'm Old Fashioned."Later on Reyburn's warm lower tones added coziness to "The Folks Who Live On The Hill."
Scott Siegel introduced "The Last Time I Saw Paris" by explaining how Oscar Hammerstein II wrote the lyric shortly after the Nazis had marched into the French capital.With that context fresh in the audience's mind, Julia Murney sang a positively devastating interpretation of the song, full of nostalgia, anger and the tragic disbelief that a glorious center of art and life had been trampled.
The impossibly loveable and charismatic hoofer, Noah Racey, has become a welcome regular at Siegel's Town Hall presentations, regularly stopping shows with his flashing feet and engaging humor and showmanship.A comic routine involving Scott, Noah and missing tap shoes (it really needs to be seen) had the crowd in stitches and was followed by a soaring (self-choreographed) "I Won't Dance."Later on Racey was teamed with Nancy Anderson for "A Fine Romance," where the two showed brilliant chemistry in singing, dancing and cutting capers.(If anyone has a lot of money and wants to do a good deed for Broadway, I'd suggest a revival of My One And Only starring these two.)
Despite having won two Grammy Awards for gospel and being a top country music star, Lari White was pretty much an unknown to the New York theatre crowd when her short-lived Broadway debut, Ring of Fire, played Broadway.But when Siegel needed a country voice to sing from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in his recent concert celebrating the Broadway musicals of 1978, White wowed the crowd with an engaging voice and the kind of lyric phrasing theatre music needs to define character and tell a story.Returning to Town Hall for Kern, White's sumptuous "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" was full of the kind of sexual enrapturement that makes it clear why she's loving that one man 'till she dies.Her "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" was softly thrilling. Let's hope Lari White enjoys theatre music because she does it so well.
The tricky task of imitating a variety of styles with a small ensemble was expertly handled by music director and pianist Scott Cady, joined by Ray Kilday (bass), Jay Berliner (guitars/mandolin), Jack Stucky (clarinet, flute, tenor sax) and Matthew Lehmann (violin).
Photos by Maryann Lopinto:Top:Roosevelt Andre Credit
Second:Sean Martin Hingston and Joyce Chittick
Bottom:Noah Racey and Nancy Anderson