by Marilyn Lester
It was a very good year – 1959. It was a bonanza year for Broadway, with stars such as Julie Andrews, Tom Bosley, Robert Preston, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Ethel Merman and Gwen Vernon appearing in shows such as West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiorello, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Li’l Abner, and Flower Drum Song. 1959 was also the year of Jeff Harnar’s birth, and what could be more celebratory of both the man and the Great White Way than this glorious bon bon, The 1959 Broadway Songbook. Harnar debuted the show in 1991 to rave reviews (and a filming of it for PBS). In the intervening years the show’s patina has worn well, as has its creator.
The conceit of the The 1959 Broadway Songbook is that it replicates a complete musical theater experience within itself, with a though-line of love, marriage and politics. There’s an Overture, of course, played by pianist, music director Alex Rybeck, Harnar’s long-time friend and colleague. The two collaborated on the original 1991 show, and carry on here along with director Sara Louise Lazarus. Rybeck (who also duets with Harnar on a few numbers) plays the bejeezus out of a tune. He is verily a one-man orchestra with lush, embellished arrangements that compliment Harnar’s delivery with nonpareil pizzazz. Since there are several complicated medleys – the marriage medley and the political medley, for instance – the teamwork pays off delightfully. During Act One, Harnar excelled on a lovely version of “Love Look Away” and demonstrated his well-established comic chops on “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today.” The marriage medley was an inspired mélange with “Get Me To The Church On Time, juxtaposed to “Don’t Marry Me,” among others. Of course a musical must have an Intermission, and stepping out to get some air, a car radio or two might be playing, allowing Harnar to slip in a few tunes of the day such as “Dream Lover” and “Theme From a Summer Place.”
Singers who have acting training usually bring a little something extra to a lyric, and Harnar, who possesses a BFA from NYU is no exception. After the Entr’ Acte, the pace picked up with a fierce mashup of songs in several medleys. Standouts were “Till There Was You,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” and Long Before I Knew You,” sung with Harnar’s high standard of modulation, enunciation and impeccable phrasing delivered by his pleasing, smooth baritone. Comedy reigned again with “Have Some Madeira, M’Dear” while wit and a touch of cynicism was applied to “Politics and Poker,” “Little Tin Box” and “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands.” Finally, at the Act Two Curtain Call, Harnar sang a heartfelt “Till Tomorrow,” followed by an equally heartfelt trip to the year in question and a brief litany of its high points. Inevitably the curtain must come down, and it did so to a rousing “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.”
In The 1959 Broadway Songbook, Harnar fired up a most delightful time machine. The show is smartly conceived, written and directed, but beyond that, at the center of it is a performer who possesses charm, grace, sophistication and a charismatic connection to the audience. Harnar is polished to perfection and most of all, he’s full of joy. There were moments he was so delicious you’d just want to eat him up with a spoon. There is nothing quite so special for an audience than to experience a performer who is having a heck of a good time and wants you to come along for the ride. Combine this inclusivity with grade A talent and top-shelf material such as The 1959 Broadway Songbook and you have a certified winner.
The 1959 Broadway Songbook August 13 at 7PM
The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd Street, 212-206-0440, www.metropolitanroom.com
Photos: Steve Friedman