by Alix Cohen
It’s been thirty years since Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck performed this loving tribute to the 1950s and there’s not a speck of dust on the stellar show. Fifties Gold is fun; evocatively and personally written, performed with authenticity of the era. For many of us, it’s a skip down memory lane behind this genial pied piper.
In the 1950s, “television was new, space travel, was new and I was new… My parents built their American Dream…in that more dreamer friendly decade…” “Unchained Melody” (Alex North/Hy Zaret) and “Hold Me! Thrill Me! Kiss Me!” (Harry Noble) arrive unhomogenized croon. Harnar’s naturally earnest persona allows us to appreciate the innocence of the material. “Young at Heart” (Johnny Richards/Carolyn Leigh), with the band echoing vocal back-up, feels like a warm bath.
“Let me set the stage for you. My brother is out back playing Zorro, my sister is in the kitchen with her Betty Crocker Cookbook, my parents are planning their latest theme party. Where am I? At the Philco Home Entertainment Center…” Harnar has a stack of his folks’ LPs on the piano, from Anka, Bennett and Clooney to Jonathan Winters and Tom Lehrer.
A medley of well chosen novelty songs illuminates the variety of the collection on which he cut his teeth and reflects the spirit of the time. From “Mambo Italiano” (Bob Merrill) to “The Banana Boat Song” (Erik Darling/Bob Carey/Alan Arkin)- we all spontaneously sing “Day-o!” to “The Ballad of Davey Crockett” (George Bruns/Tom Blackburn)- our audience pipes up with the song’s chorus and “Mickey Mouse March” : M-I-C–K-E -Y –M-O-U-S-E (Jimmie Dodd.)
Older siblings exposed him to rock and roll. Remember those portable box record players? Harnar dons a black leather jacket and takes an I-dare-you stance. Esther Navarro’s “Gloria,” (Gla ho ree ha) features high tenor which seems fitting rather than gratuitous for the first time in the show. (Too of it much diminished effect) Shoulders tilt back, eyebrows connect in a point. Tangy sax adds teenage angst. Step, slouch, step slouch…Buck Ram’s “The Great Pretender” sashays. Bobby Darrin’s “Dream Lover” elicits rhythmic claps. “That ends the leather portion of the show.”
“In the 1950s, they didn’t talk about sex. Did the Cleaver household even have a master bedroom?” (Leave It to Beaver television show) Eddie Cooley/John Davenport’s “Fever” was, we’re surprised to learn, recorded by Pat Boone in a “sizzling version banned from the air waves.”
The only thing that’s changed about this show is that Harnar now feels free to take the song into our audience, sitting on men’s laps, straddling a leg, stroking a beard. He’s pretty damn seductive. What a lovely way to burnnnn lingers in the air like smoke.
Charlie Chaplin’s iconic “Smile,” finally got a lyric (by John Turner/Geoffrey Parsons) in 1953, the same year the US recalled his passport for finding him unfriendly to America. A nod to the ugliness of the period that gave birth to McCarthyism remains just that, so as not to cloud festivities. The rendition is pristine, as vulnerable as bubbles.
Equally straight from the hip is Johnny Ray’s “Cry”: If your sweetheart sends a letter of goodbye/It’s no secret you’ll feel better if you cry… Elvis Presley said he never would’ve had a career were it not for Ray who lost his own to being outed.
A light, bouncy “Secret Love” (Sammy Fain/Paul Francis Webster) with gliding flute and a buttery “Because of You” (Arthur Hammerstein/Dudley Wilkinson) exude deep affection. “Mack the Knife” swings with relaxed rapport. (Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht-English lyrics Marc Blitzstein/Turk Murphy)
Jeff Harnar feels most at home in the 1950s. I can think of few others who’d be able to personify those years so warmly and well. Arrangements by the synergistic Alex Rybeck are pitch perfect, faithful without copying. Director Sara Louise Lazarus, a collaborator from day one, has brought out the best in this entertainer who is here as true to himself as he is to material. A splendid show.
(I could’ve done without the cigarette commercials.)
Photos by Gene Reed
Jeff Harnar- Because of You: Fifties Gold
Alex Rybeck-Music Director/Piano
Steve Doyle-Bass, Dan Gross-Drums, Marc Phaneuf-Sax, Flute
Directed by Sara Louise Lazarus
The Laurie Beechman Theater 407 West 42nd Street
Venue Calendar: https://www.westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre
July 27, 2019
ENCORE: September 15, 2019 Birdland Theater https://www.birdlandjazz.com/