By Ron Fassler
Last night, I attended “We’ll Have Manhattan: Rodgers & Hart in New York,” the inaugural show of 2019 for the 92nd Street Y’s “Lyrics & Lyricists.” It is the first of five evenings that any lover of the great American songbook should be made aware. With their first “Lyrics & Lyricists” produced way back in 1970, this indispensable series has now been entertaining audiences for five decades. Under the relatively new leadership of Ted Chapin, whose long-standing commitment to the arts as central to the health and growth of New York City, the Y has found a perfect match. For the first show of this second season, Chapin has enlisted the multi-talented Santino Fontana, the Tony Award nominated actor and recent star of the hit CW-TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. For anyone who has seen Fontana on stage or screen, his musical abilities are first rate; including being a wonderful jazz pianist—which alongside writing the text for the entire evening—contributed to this charming revue.
Accompanied by Lilli Cooper, Fontana’s future co-star in the musical version of Tootsie (opening on Broadway in March), he was joined by Vishal Vaidya, recently of Groundhog Day; Ann Harada, best known for having created the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q, and Jessica Fontana (Broadway’s Cinderella, where she was employed alongside her soon-to-be husband, Santino). Under the direction of Gina Rattan, with musical direction by Andy Einhorn, the five-person ensemble melded as one beautifully, particularly in the inventive choral numbers. The arrangements were dazzling, which wasn’t too surprising since they were provided by one of the theatre’s top musicians, David Chase (also soon to be part of Tootsie).
One of Fontana’s main points while giving us some history about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, was his observation that Hart (who died in 1943), never lived to see his more than 800 songs become living testaments to his talent as a lyricist. He never heard Ella Fitzgerald’s landmark recording of the Rodgers & Hart Songbook, or Frank Sinatra’s many interpretations, or even Lady Gaga’s. More than seventy-five years after his death, thousands of artists the world over continue to record his songs, in ways Hart would probably never imagined them performed.
On stage, we were treated to most of the established hits (“Manhattan,” “Wait till You See Her,” “Where or When” and “Blue Moon”) as well as some obscurities such as “Disgustingly Rich” and “Where’s that Rainbow?” It would have been impossible to get all the famous tunes in a packed two-hour evening, so we had to do without “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “The Lady is a Tramp,” to name only two. But the ones that made the cut were all wisely chosen, and more importantly, cut to the specific talents of the performers. Ann Harada brought her great comic energy to the obscure “At the Roxy Music Hall;” Vaidya, his stunning tenor to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” Cooper a smoky jazz rendition of “Thou Swell,” as well as the hilarious “To Keep My Love Alive.” And the Fontanas were well represented with their choices, among them Jessica’s bright soprano on “Falling in Love with Love” and Santino’s exquisite rendition (at the piano) of “My Funny Valentine.”
Check out the website for how to get tickets to the upcoming shows, which include “Yes, I Can,” a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. songbook, and “Sondheim: Wordplay,” which totally speaks for itself/
Photos: Richard Termine