Proving that politics and the human condition haven’t really changed, a fine young cast presented an entertaining concert version of the 1933 topical musical revue As Thousands Cheer at Feinstein’s/54 Below on Tuesday night to great success.
This show with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and sketches by Moss Heart was a successor to their revue, Face the Music. It marked the last stage appearance of theater star Marilyn Miller. It also was the first Broadway show to give equal billing to an African American star, Ethel Waters. This concert version, under fine, young director Justin Schwartz, was organized by him with fellow alumni of Muhlenberg College, where he first presented it, and some of his other NY performer friends.
The entire ensemble perfectly captured the sound and style of the period, while keeping the material and the evening feeling fresh. The singing was very tight vocally, and all the musical numbers showed the strong guiding hand of veteran pianist, arranger and musical director Eugene Gwodtz.
The Feinstein’s/54 Below stage was flanked by two projection screens, onto which director Schwartz projected the headlines which inspired and contextualized each of the songs. In most cases the match up wasn’t surprising. But it certainly lent greater meaning to “Summer Time,” in which an African American woman laments that her man “won’t be coming home no more” against a headline blaring “Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob.”
A couple of the musical numbers, “Heat Wave” and “Easter Bonnet”, went on to be Great American Songbook standards. Most of the other songs, while lesser known, still stand the test of time well, whether comedic or serious. One character’s addiction to “The Funnies” mirrors my own! “Man Bites Dog” cleverly skewers how sensationalism has bumped real news stories, which is certainly a big issue today. Josephine Baker in Paris sings of having “Harlem on My Mind”, which makes its point beautifully whether or not you know that she launched a passion for black performers in Paris in the 1920’s. “How’s Chances” stands up better as a generic love song than as a poke at Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton’s wedding to Prince Mdivani, even though the song has lyrics pointing to his castles as not being worth so much. Some numbers made fun ofissues too long gone, e.g., a number which lampooned nouveau riche merchants pushing out old money patrons from their seats at the Metropolitan Opera. The funniest idea was probably “Not For All the Rice in China,” in which the Ensemble laments a Supreme Court decision forbidding them from repeating any of the evening’s songs as a reprise…in the course of which, that is exactly what they do. Lamentation about the Supreme Court could not be a more timely theme.
Director Schwartz chose to cut the handful of stand alone comedy sketches, most of which would not resonate with a generation unfamiliar with the subjects of their satire. This includes a sketch about the Hoovers in office, Joan Crawford divorcing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Gandi on a new hunger strike, and an aged John D. Rockefeller on his 94thbirthday. So it wasn’t the whole show, but the loss wasn’t particularly felt.
The evening was made truly successful by the individual and collective vocal talents of the cast. Standouts include a fine leading lady, Dana Aber, equally lovely to look at as to hear, Eric Stephenson, who delivered a period styled tenor with just the right lilt and vibrato, and the raven haired Jennifer Apple, who gave a sly rendition of the gossip columnist’s song “Through a Keyhole.” Sheldon Gamabon made a very funny dog biting man, and gave a fine comic performance of “The Funnies”. But the highlight of the evening was clearly the strikingly beautiful Andrea Fleming. She easily shifted persona from the sexiness of a Carribean beauty in “Heat Wave,” to a very American ex-pat Josphine Baker longing for Harlem, and then tore our hearts out with the tragic lament of a poor Southern African American woman in “Supper Time.” As if her stunning, chiseled features and versatile, classically trained voice weren’t remarkable enough, I learned after the show that she was a last minute replacement, who had only received and learned the music the day before! Only sweet and pretty Lindsay Fabes, charming as she was, fell a bit short in professional polish by comparison as a soloist on “Lonely Heart Column”. But give her time.
The fun of being a Feinstein’s/54 Below regular is the variety of the shows. You can see an established Broadway star one day, and a group of rising talents like this the next. So don’t just wait for the names you know before you explore this warm and intimate venue.