The most rousing reception in the 16th annual Broadway Unplugged Concert last night (November 30) went to Chuck Cooper, who in the final solo number on the program sang the iconic “Old Man River” from “Showboat.” Without a mike, Cooper cannily built to a climax that soared with the intense feeling that the song communicates when sung from the depths of the soul with the painful awareness of the racial suffering reflected. It was a supremely powerful performance.
The opportunity to hear singers without amplification, as it once used to be on Broadway, is what creator-writer-co-director and host Scott Siegel likes to call listening to voices “designed by God.” He used that description again as he hosted the event, held at the Merkin Concert Hall, and wittily introduced an impressive array of 15 vocalists.
There were other memorable performers in addition to Cooper. Farah Alvin, for example, wrung every bit of emotion out of the poignantly resentful “Cry Me a River” from “Swing!” The great William Michals was on hand, opening the show with a heartfelt “God Bless America,” the durable anthem that Iriving Berlin wrote, included in “This Is the Army.” Michals also soloed impressively with “Where’s the Girl?” from “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” and he teamed with Douglas Ladnier for the amusingly macabre “Pretty Woman” from “Sweeney Todd.”
On his own Ladnier did romantic justice to “Stranger in Paradise” from “Kismet.” A highlight of the evening was Robert Cuccioli singing the amusingly reflective “Where Is the Life that Late I Led” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” Other male stalwarts with excellent voices included Hunter Ryan Herdlicka singing “Younger Than Springtime” from “South Pacific;” Brian Charles Rooney performing “Love Can’t Happen” from “Grand Hotel;” Bob Stillman enthralling with “It All Fades Away” from “The Bridges of Madison County;” Kevin Spirtas mining “Zorba!” for the affirmative “Life Is,” and John Easterlin superbly singing “Wanting You” from “The New Moon.”
Ethel Merman is lo longer with us, but Klea Blackhurst is. She let go entertainingly with Merman-style blasts as she power-housed “Blow, Gabriel, Blow” from “Anything Goes.” I can still hear her as I write. Likable Jenny Lee Stern brought freshness to the warhorse “Cabaret” from “Cabaret.” Looking great, Emily Skinner dazzled with her interpretation of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from “The Little Mermaid.”
Other crowd-pleasers were Maxine Linehan singing “Unexpected Song” from “Song & Dance” and Kristin Dausch tearing into “Some People” from “Gypsy.” The gang assembled for a finale to sing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from "The Sound of Music."
Accompaniment was provided delightfully by Ross Patterson, musical director, arranger and pianist, Tom Hubbard on bass and Mairi Dorman–Phaneuf on cello. Rick Hiknson was co-director and stage manager, Joe Burke assistant director and assistant stage manager and Holly Cruz production assistant and in charge of musical staging.
Scott Siegel announced that as a result of contributions received, fifty students of the arts were invited to attend the concert. At the Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. Reviewed December 1, 2017.