By Andrew Poretz . . .
Jeff Harnar is cabaret royalty, if not a household name, so it’s no wonder that the sold-out Birdland main room had plenty of cabaret and Broadway royalty in the house for the return of his A Collective Cy, including KT Sullivan, Tovah Feldshuh, Lee Roy Reams and Ken Waissman, to name a few. In this show, which last played in 2006 at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Harnar displayed the musicianship, interpretive skills and stage presence of a man who has earned his stripes with some four decades in the business. He packed this show, which celebrated the music of the legendary Broadway and pop composer Cy Coleman, with some of Coleman’s best material, with arrangements by Harnar’s favored accompanist of 39 years, Alex Rybeck. Coleman, born Seymour Kaufman, was originally a jazz musician with a trio before he became a composer of modern standards. Appropriately, the “Rhythm of Life Quartet,” as Harnar affectionately called them, had several musicians with jazz bona fides, notablybassist Jay Leonhard, drummer Ray Marchica, and saxophonist/flutist Marc Phaneuf.
Harnar, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit (as was Rybeck), came out swinging with “Big Spender” from Sweet Charity (Dorothy Fields). His selections were excellent, mixing in some of Coleman’s most memorable pop hits, such as “Witchcraft” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” with selections from several of Coleman’s many Broadway hits, including “Sweet Charity” and “City of Angels.” His patter was in the “Goldilocks Zone” — just right — and was clever and informative. Harnar also told a couple of great anecdotes about the times he met Coleman.
“Everybody Today Is Turning On” (Michael Stewart), from I Love My Wife, is filled with clever wordplay and references romanticizing the “old days” to the artificial euphoria that was the swingin’ 60’s. Some were laugh-out-loud funny:
Remember when “high” was up and kicks were tame
And “amyl nitrate” was some guy’s name…
But once a week you cut the grass
And too much acid just gave you gas
Harnar took a very different approach to “Witchcraft” (Carolyn Leigh) than the finger-snapping Sinatra hit from 1957, singing it as a torchy ballad, with a verse previously unknown to this writer. He rode a long section of the song in a sweet, gorgeous falsetto that sounded like an extension of his natural range.
Harnar changed up the mood with the delightful “Doodlin’ Song” (Carolyn Leigh). He admitted that he learned the tune from a memorable episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show where the song was sung by “Rob and Laura Petrie.” Bassist Jay Leonhard and accompanist Alex Rybeck provided an obligato backup to this very fun sung.
Harnar was particularly effective with a medley of “The Rules of The Road”, performed as a jazz waltz, with “Come Summer” (both Carolyn Leigh) performed as a ballad, which built to a huge crescendo.
Jay Leonhart vocally introduced “The Rhythm of Life” (Dorothy Fields) from Sweet Charity, with Harnar and the band (except Leonhart) all wearing identical Men in Black-style shades. Harnar took over the lead vocals, with the “Rhythm of Life Quartet” providing something of a vocalese madrigal.
Leonhart and drummer were both in the pit of the original Broadway run of City of Angels, making “You’re Nothing Without Me” (David Zippel, with additional lyrics) a bit of a reunion, with Rybeck’s harmony complementing Harnar’s fine vocal.
Harnar’s final number, “The Best is Yet to Come” (Carolyn Leigh), initially followed the framework of the Quincy Jones arrangement for Sinatra. Phaneuf, as he had throughout the set with flute and saxophone, sometimes both in the same song, added great touches here.
Though it wasn’t mentioned, it is notable that Coleman worked so extensively with female lyricists. Out of 23 songs, including medleys, 15 had lyrics written by women: nine by Coleman’s early writing partner Carolyn Leigh, who, like Coleman, was Bronx-born and Jewish, and six by Dorothy Fields, a pioneer of female lyricists when almost none existed.
Jeff Harnar did a great job with Cy Coleman’s catalog, with the considerable help of Alex Rybeck’s terrific arrangements and a socko band, under the direction of Sara Louise Lazarus.
A Collective Cy: Jeff Harnar sings Cy Coleman
All music by Cy Coleman (lyrics as noted above)
Music Director: Alex Rybeck
Director: Sara Louise Lazarus
Bass: Jay Leonhart
Drums: Ray Marchica
Sax/Flute: Marc Phaneuf
315 West 44th Street, NYC
January 31, 2022
Video Stills Courtesy of Alex Pearlman