Back in the 1930s, when hip New Yorkers got their doses of political satire by taking in the latest Broadway musical comedy, it wasn't uncommon for then-President FDR to pop up in a show; either in person, as played by George M. Cohan in Rodgers and Hart's I'd Rather Be Right or, more frequently, through comical lyrics, such as those penned by Harold Rome in Pins and Needles and Cole Porter in Leave It To Me!
Usually the Commander in Chief was presented in an affectionate light, but in revising Washington Irving's Knickerbocker History of New York for the musical stage, bookwriter/lyricist Maxwell Anderson made the evening critical of The New Deal and big government; not only writing a small role as a dimwitted ancestor of Roosevelt, but drawing parallels between his presidency and Peter Stuyvesant's governing of New Amsterdam. A devout pacifist, Anderson's gave the book an extended second act speech on the tragedy of war, which may not have been completely welcomed by those in 1938 audiences who saw a growing need for America to get involved in the escalating European conflict. Likewise, given political attitudes of the late 1930s, wisecracks like, "Democracy is when you're governed by amateurs," might have been greeted with more nervous chuckles than belly laughs.
But if nowadays Anderson's political soap-boxing comes off as a quaint and heavy-handed artifact of its time, Kurt Weill's music stands out as a fascinating example of how the composer was shedding his Weimar skin and adapting to a brighter Broadway style. Last week's positively splendid concert presentation of Knickerbocker Holiday at Alice Tully Hall, conducted by James Bagwell, featured sumptuous contributions from The Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra.
Further downstage, a first-rate cast of musical theatre stars played out a trimmed version of the book under Ted Sperling's direction; a presentation full of vigor, tenderness and humor, staged simply with actors in formal wear and music stands holding scripts.
Victor Garber, who raises the act of singing a ballad while wearing a tux to an art form which should be offered as a major in every performing arts school in the country, was all debonair vanity as tyrannical Peter Stuyvesant. Though the score's most famous number, "September Song," is a quiet ballad of an aging gentleman offering a much younger woman the best of whatever days he has left, its placement in the story is not at all sympathetic; Stuyvesant is trying to woo a young woman while keeping the man she loves locked up in jail. But Garber's soft and soothing timbre, matched with exquisite sincerity, made it a truly heartbreaking moment.
The woman he tried wooing was played by Kelli O'Hara, who seems to have had her appetite whetted for playing comedy after starring in the Encores! production of Bells Are Ringing. She enjoyed a few dumb blonde moments in her ingénue role, but vocally shimmered with sterling beauty in the score's other standard, the achingly lovely "It Never Was You." Her duet partner for that one was Ben Davis, a fine, robust baritone who played the hot-headed activist.
The supporting cast included a terrific assortment of musical theatre character comics: David Garrison as a crafty politico, Christopher Fitzgerald as the hero's impish sidekick and an inept town council made up of Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael McCormick, Orville Mendoza, Brad Oscar, and Steve Rosen. Bryce Pinkham guided the proceedings along as Washington Irving, opening the show with the jaunty "Clackety-Clack" and dueting with Davis on the catchy and satirical "How Can You Tell an American?"
Photos by Erin Baiano: Top: Kelli O'Hara and Victor Garber; Bottom: Kelli O'Hara, David Garrison, Brooks Ashmanskas, Orville Mendoza, Brad Oscar, Steve Rosen, Jeff Blumenkrantz and Michael McCormick.
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-- Bernadette Peters
The grosses are out for the week ending 1/30/2011 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: THE LION KING (15.3%), LOMBARDI (12.6%), CHICAGO (9.5%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (9.5%), BILLY ELLIOT: THE MUSICAL (9.3%), MARY POPPINS (9.2%), TIME STANDS STILL (8.4%), THE ADDAMS FAMILY (8.2%), LA CAGE AUX FOLLES (7.1%), Million Dollar Quartet (6.3%), JERSEY BOYS (5.9%), MAMMA MIA! (4.0%), AMERICAN IDIOT (1.3%),
Down for the week was: DRIVING MISS DAISY (-9.6%), MEMPHIS (-7.0%), THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (-4.9%), WICKED (-4.4%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-2.9%), Colin Quinn: LONG STORY SHORT (-1.2%),