By Elizabeth Ahlfors, July 7, 2016
“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” wrote Bob Dylan. Though times may be a-changin,’ chances are that many songs from your past, perhaps “In My Life” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” are stamped, unchanged, into your memory, sentimentally tied to another time and often a specific event.
On July 7, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, creator/writer/director/host Scott Siegel offered a summertime salute to the Broadway Jukebox Musicals, featuring a mix of well-known songs from the theater and pop worlds. The shows will run on four alternating Thursdays, accompanied by the powerful musical imagination of pianist Ross Patterson. Varying performers from clubs and theaters will rotate new songs for each show.
The first 54 Sings Broadway Jukebox Musical featured theater performers Joshua Greenblatt, Douglas Ladnier, Brian Charles Rooney and Farah Alvin and Kenita Miller, two powerhouse belters who fired their tunes upstairs and right to 54th Street. Expect songs from bona fide blockbusters like Jersey Boys (the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons), Abba’s Mamma Mia! and Carole King’s Beautiful. Other songs were taken from disappointing short runs, proving that even Broadway turkeys may contain relevant material. Examples are Brian Charles Rooney’s rendition of the idealistic “Imagine” (from Lennon) and “Forever Young” from Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, sung with rich resonance by Douglas Ladnier.
The show flowed with a breezy balance. Kenita Miller opened the evening with a saucy Fats Waller tune, “Keepin’ Out of Mischief,” from Ain’t Misbehavin’. She added a mature gusto to “Natural Woman” (Beautiful, by Gerry Goffin/Carole King/Jerry Wexler) and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from Motown: The Musical (Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson). For a brooding Johnny Cash sound, Ladnier lowered his baritone for “I Walk the Line” (Ring of Fire).
Joshua Greenblatt delivered a nuanced nostalgia of “In My Life” (Beatlemania by John Lennon and Paul McCartney) and closed the show with a driving, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” (Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio in Jersey Boys). Rooney used his expansive tone to express the story behind “Heartbreak Hotel” from All Shook Up. Written by Tommy Durden and Mae Boren Axton, the song was a hit for Elvis Presley but instead of adapting Elvis’ physical pelvic moves, Rooney concentrated on the desolate story. In close harmony, he later delivered a duet with Farah Alvin from Beautiful, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ (Phil Spector, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil).
Scott Siegel took full advantage of the vocal and dramatic versatility of Farah Alvin who delved into a song and gave it character. Her focused vocals were supported by a dedication to the meaning of the songs, including Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” (The Boy From Oz) and the forceful build through, “The Winner Takes It All” from Mamma Mia! (Benny Anderson/Bjorn Ulvaeus).
The standout in this show was Alvin’s fiercely passionate “I (Who Have Nothing),” which was written in 1961 as an Italian pop song, “Uno Dei Tanti,” by Carlo Donida and Giulio “Mogol” Rapetti. Several years later, Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller wrote English lyrics for Ben E. King’s recording. Stoller and Lieber included their English lyrics in the jukebox musical, Smokey Joe’s Cafe.
The prevalence of juke box musicals hold a special place in entertainment, and love ’em or hate ’em, the repertory is expanding. You can catch the next version of 54 Sings Broadway Jukebox Musicals on July 21, August 4 and 18 for a sentimental return to some long-ago “Summer Nights” (and you probably know that song is from Grease).
Adding quips of dry humor, Siegel knows how to match favorite songs with top singers who can deliver. He has proven this with his longtime Broadway by the Year at The Town Hall (now in its 16th critically acclaimed season), Broadway Unplugged, Broadway’s Rising Stars and The Nightlife Awards also at The Town Hall, and has been producer/director/writer for Michael Feinstein at Jazz at Lincoln Center, plus a wide variety of popular and critically acclaimed shows for Feinstein’s/54 Below.
*Watch for live performance photos added shortly