Urban Stages’ Winter Rhythms presented a very special evening highlighting the life of this brilliant and successful musical book writer to benefit The Michael Stewart Foundation and Urban Stages Outreach Program
By Sandi Durell
All too often most theatergoers concentrate on the music and lyrics of a production, never realizing that the true architect of a musical is the book writer. This couldn’t have been more succinctly brought into focus than in an evening (December 18) devoted to the life and work of Michael Stewart. Who you say? Think Hello,Dolly!, Barnum, George M!, Bye Bye Birdie, 42nd Street, Mack & Mabel, I Love My Wife, Carnival, The Grand Tour for openers.
Tony Award winning director/writer Mark Bramble hosted and narrated an evening chockfull of some of our most memorable songs and performers (many of whom were in the original casts). Francine Pascal, Michael Stewart’s sister, delivered a revealing, detailed and loving commentary on the extreme difficulties of gay bashing her older brother endured growing up in the 40s thru 60s. A sigh of relief – from then to now!
The program (under the musical direction of Todd Ellison, including other pianists) opened with “Come Follow the Band” (Barnum), sung by Ashley Blanchet and Blake Stadnik, followed by musical royalty – Charles Strouse, who played and sang “Put On a Happy Face” (Bye Bye Birdie) and, if it’s possible to imagine, more royalty took the stage in the gorgeous form of Chita Rivera who revved things up with “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” as only she can, sexy dance breaks and all.
Sal Viviano, and his glorious Broadway booming voice, did justice to “Her Face” (Carnival), delivered a grand interpretation of “I Won’t Send Roses” (Mack & Mabel), his acting abilities shining bright, and turned up the romance quotient on title song “I Love My Wife.”
Broadway showman, Lee Roy Reams, gave Bette Midler a run for her money with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” (Hello, Dolly! – Lee Roy having played the title role) and knocked it out of the box reprising his role as Billy Lawlor in the original Broadway’s 42nd Street with “Lullaby of Broadway,” which opened in 1980 and ran for 3486 performances. It was Gower Champion’s last show and David Merrick’s final success.
The ever popular Klea Blackhurst sang “Before The Parade Passes By” (Hello,Dolly!) easily proving she’s ready to take over the title role at any time. From the original cast of Mack & Mabel, Caroline O’Connor gave a roaring performance of “Look What Happened to Mabel.” Adam B. Shapiro was on hand with a wonderful rendition of “I’ll be Here Tomorrow” – Jacobowsky’s Theme (The Grand Tour) and Dee Hoty offered a stunning performance of “The Lady Lies” (Doug Katsaros on piano).
Other songs performed included “Time Heals Everything” (Mack & Mabel) beautifully sung by Ashley Blanchet; “ “My Town” (George M! ) sung by Blake Stadnik and “Hey There Good Times” (I Love My Wife), sung by original cast member on bass, John Miller.
The piece de resistance was the delightful Jim Dale, an entertainer’s entertainer, from the original cast of Barnum, with Matthew Martin Ward on piano, reprising “Sucker” and “The Museum Song.” He offered up charming backstage stories, especially about learning to walk a tightrope and falling off and falling off until opening night, when he didn’t!
This was a night of extraordinary entertainment saluting one of the greats in our musical history, Michael Stewart, and directed by Urban Stages’ Peter Napolitano.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto