by David Tane
“Sing out, Louise!” commanded Mama Rose to her hesitant daughter in Ethel Merman’s tour de force, “Gypsy”.
Well, there was no hesitation tonight as Merkin Hall was filled with the glorious sound of the human voice, without the aid of microphones or other artificial enhancements. Scott Siegel, tireless impresario and famed for his Town Hall series, Broadway By Year, presented the 18th annual edition of his tribute to the days when Ms. Merman and her colleagues raised their voices in song using only lung power. Merman the Great would have been proud.
As is his custom, Mr. Siegel shared bits of Broadway trivia and history, including the introduction of microphones first placed on the stage in the 1950’s and the first use of body mics (Carol Channing in 1964’s “Hello, Dolly!”). Eventually, the term, “sound designer” became a profession and a Tony Award category. I know that amplification is here to stay but I can’t say I’m always thrilled – often amplification, even when the latest technology is used, produces odd and disconcerting effects and intrudes on the intimacy between performer and audience. At tonight’s show, however, the audience thrilled to the renditions of well-known, and some not so well known Broadway (and in the case of two selections, pop and Off-Broadway) numbers. While not every song sent chills up my spine, several did, making the evening extra special.
Standouts in this evening’s roster, unfortunately a little top heavy on male talent, included the operatic tenor, John Easterlin. This wonderful tenor had the crowd at Merkin Hall cheering his renditions of “One Alone” (from Sigmund Romberg’s 1926 operetta, “The Desert Song”), and the infrequently sung but soaring “She Wasn’t You” (from Lerner and Lane’s “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever”). Also embraced by the audience was William Michals who reprised his starring role in “Beauty and the Beast” singing the powerful “If I Can’t Love Her” and later in the evening gave a poignant reading of “If We Only Have Love” (from the Off-Broadway review “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well…”). As with many of tonight’s best performers, Mr. Michal is not a one-dimensional belter; he managed to convey emotion and depth quietly, but audibly– quite a feat without the aid of amplification.
And, although the ladies were underrepresented tonight, they more than held their own. Klea Blackhurst, the Merman aficionado who seems to be everywhere lately (she recently hosted the Cabaret Convention’s Judy Garland tribute while starring in the York Theatre’s Musicals In Mufti production of Cole Porter’s “Panama Hattie”) acquitted herself ably, singing Irving Berlin’s “I Got The Sun In The Morning” and later on in the evening, paired with the engaging Bill Daugherty, wowing the audience with that wonderful duet from Berlin’s “Call Me Madam”, “You’re Just In Love”. I must mention also Maxine Linehan who made Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Memories” (frankly, not one of my favorites) surprisingly enjoyable. Later on in the evening, ably assisted by Ben Jones, Ms. Linehan did a fine job with “Move On”, from Sondheim’s “Sunday In The Park With George”. Farah Alvin was the last, but by no means the least, to perform tonight, giving her all to “His Is The Only Music That Makes Me Dance” from the Broadway score of “Funny Girl”. This touching ballad was not used in the film version and so is not well known but deserves to be heard more often.
One of tonight’s unexpected treats was “Soul And Inspiration” from “The Righteous Brothers”. This soulful love song was sung tonight by two especially strong singers, Brian Charles Rooney, and Douglas Ladnier, an inspired pairing from the mind of Mr. Siegel – the crowd ate it up.
As is his custom, Mr. Siegel showcased performers from his Rising Stars series. A quartet of young singers (Christopher Brian, Mara Friedman, Brian Gabriel and Adan Gallegos) received encouraging applause with their rendition of “What I Did For Love” from “A Chorus Line”. This number was reprised by the entire cast (enthusiastically joined by the audience) during the curtain call – a perfect end to a great evening.
All of tonight’s performers received solid support from a trio of talented musicians – bassist Don Falzone and cellist Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf led by longtime musical director Ross Patterson at the Steinway concert grand.
Cheers to Scott Siegel and company. I’m looking forward to the 19th edition of Broadway Unplugged!