As creator/writer/director/host Scott Siegel pointed out, the 1920s gave rise to a major change in the musical form as well as birth to numbers that earned a place in the American Songbook. The evidence was entertainingly on display at The Town Hall in the exploration of the 20s last night (February 27th) in this latest of the Broadway by the Year series, now in its 17th year.
Operettas were popular at the time, and the show got off to an appropriate start by William Michals singing “Song of the Vagabonds” from Rudolf Friml’s 1925 “The Vagabond King.” He did it the old-fashioned way—without a mike. Michals, who has a rich, glorious voice, needed no amplification as he wowed the crowd with the first of his numbers.
As Scott noted, a major shift was instituted by the 1927 “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein work that combined music and story in a new way for Broadway. Carolee Carmello and Robert Cuccioli enchantingly sang “Make Believe” from that show.
Both Carmello and Cuccioli proved stalwarts of the program. Carmello contributed a tender “Someone to Watch Over Me” from the 1926 “Oh, Kay!” and a powerfully impassioned “The Man I Love” from the 1924 “Lady, Be Good.” Cuccioli, ever appealing, sang “My Heart Stood Still” from the 1927 “A Connecticut Yankee,” “With a Song in My heart” from “Spring Is Here (1929) and “What’ll I Do?” from “Music Box Review” (1923).
The casting of theater notables for this edition of the series was impeccable. When Beth Malone sang “Love Me or Leave Me” from “Whoopee!” (1928), she looked as if she had stepped out of the decade. She also did an Al Jolson-style delivery of “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’bye) from “Bombo” (1921), and had already shown her ability to change dramatically with her emotional delivery of “My Man” from “Ziegfeld Follies” (1921).
Jill Paice was another plus, impressively contributing the durable “More Than You Know” from “Great Day” (1929), “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from “Blackbirds of 1928” and “A Ship Without a Sail” from “Heads Up” (1929).
Mary Testa is always a prime performer and she came through anew with versatility. She was a powerhouse singing “Find Me a Primitive Man” from “Fifty Million Frenchmen” (1929). Siegel, who on occasion likes to get into the act, came at her with a giant caveman-like prop club and the bit was hilarious. Testa also showed how good she could be with ballads, interpreting “I’ve Got a Crush on You” from “Treasure Girl” (1928) and the poignant “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” from “Show Boat.”
Dancing adds spice when included, and tap dancer supreme Danny Gardner starred in and choreographed two numbers. The first act ended with “’S Wonderful” from “Funny Face” (1927), as he was stylishly abetted by dancers Bailey Callahan, Mindy Moeller, Danelle Morgan and Katie Walker, who are Rockettes. The ladies returned to back up Beth Malone in starting the second act with “Toot Toot Tootsie (Goo’bye).” Gardner tapped ingeniously with Brent McBeth and John Scacchetti in “I Want to Be Happy” from “No, No, Nanette” (1925). They incorporated into the number seated assistant Holly Cruz as the object of their attention, and she gamely got into the spirit tapping together a pair of shoes given her and rhythmically sauntering off stage with the guys at the finish.
I can never say enough about William Michals. He used a mike to movingly sing “Lover, Come Back to Me” from “The New Moon” (1928), but was unamplified again in delivering an all-powerful “One Alone” from “The Desert Song” (1926). (Singing without a mike, which used to be the norm in the theater, will be celebrated by Siegel and company at The Town Hall on May 1st with “Broadway Unplugged.”)
As usual since the start of the Broadway by the Year series, Ross Patterson was musical director, always a demanding task with such varied programming, as well as played piano brilliantly as leader of his Little Big Band, which on this occasion included Tom Hubbard on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums. Siegel’s assistant director and assistant stage manager was Rick Hinkson, with the aforementioned Holly Cruz and Joe Burke as production assistants. At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-840-2824. Reviewed February 28, 2017.