by Alix Cohen
“Willkommen,” nods maestro Steve Ross from the piano, launching into Cole Porter’s lilting “Wunderbar” and Gus Kahn/Walter Jurman/Bronislau Kaper’s jaunty “San Francisco.” “What could be more oom pah pah mit schlag than “Wunderbar” and more American than “San Francisco?” he asks.
Today Ross will address one of two influences of The American Songbook, not Southern, African Americans, but rather Middle Europa/the old country “and those talented refugees who arrived from the 1920s through the 1940s…First of all, is anyone here allergic to schlag?”
“Literally hundreds of operettas were written during a ‘Silver Age.’ We associate musicals like Lady Be Good and No, No Nanette with the roaring twenties, but operetta was equally popular.” Our host calls Sigmund Romberg “One of the greatest melodists of all time.” His tribute to The Student Prince (written with Dorothy Donnelly ) notably eschews camp. Songs are performed with appreciation and affection.
Guest Zachary Stains holds a silk handkerchief over the lower part of this face setting mood for “The Desert Song.” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II) Hands at his sides, expressively amorous, vocal swells with eloquent control. Soprano Jacqueline Milena adds her own melodious soaring to a duet. They grasp hands.
“Before Hammerstein was writing about cornfields (Oklahoma!), he was writing about mounties and mountebanks. The things you learn when you go to Lexington Avenue in the middle of the day!” Ross’s medley from Music in The Air (Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II) includes a balladic “Every Little Star”: I’ve told every little star/Just how sweet I think you are…and “I Hear Music”…when I look at you…
The title song from the film I Dream Too Much is offered by Milena, head at a tilt, one hand on the piano, phrases ascending. Stains and Hans Pieter Herman provide back-up. The men sway with singularly angelic faces. Were this a staged number, there might be ethereal smoke. Were I younger, I might giggle at the men. (Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern)
Marinka (George Marion Jr./Emmerich Kalman) is a retelling of the Mayerling story (a series of events surrounding the apparent murder–suicide of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria.) The ‘updated’ version does not, however, end in suicide, but rather pastoral Connecticut. Ross plays a short medley including its mazurka. “If you’re dying in a club, a friend once told me, give them a gypsy ending. I’ll give you an example: Stay, funny valentine, stay/ HEY!”
Piano selections by Frederick Loewe speak of things to come. Ross musically interprets that which would eventually become “I Could’ve Danced All Night” (My Fair Lady) and that which morphed into “It’s Almost Like Being in Love.” (Brigadoon), both written with Alan Jay Lerner. Every songwriter owns an overstuffed trunk.
Fourteen years after The Merry Widow, The Land of Smiles arrived by way of Ludwig Herzer and Fritz Lohner. Herman’s fulsome, vivid baritone unfurls Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz (My Entire Heart is Yours) connecting with the audience as clearly as if singing in English. The beautiful rendition feels like swallowing a cloud.
“Fred Astaire’s last name was Austerlitz; his first appearance in operetta, his last in 1931’s The Band Wagon” Ross’s “I Love Louisa” is jaunty and fresh. Instinctively cued, our audience chimes in with “More Beer!” Smiles erupt. (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz.) The droll “How Much I Love You” follows. (Ogden Nash/Kurt Weill)
Continuing Hollywood songs “Be My Love” (Sammy Kahn/Nicolas Brodszky) floats in gossamer, “September Song” poignant. Steve Ross may be the best balladeer we have these days. No one cuts to the truth with such superior, low key musicianship and vulnerable heart.
“The Granddaddy of all operettas,” The Merry Widow, is represented by Herman in German and Milena in English. Each charmingly tells the story of the his/her part of the plot, then convincingly performs. During the lady’s segment, all three men provide back-up- inadvertently in stereo. The vocalists duet, then prettily waltz. Sighs can be heard among us.
Ross closes with Rudolf Sieczyński’s “Vienna, City of My Dreams.”
The talent, finesse, wit and buoyancy in this show uplift.
Steve Ross: I’m In Love With Vienna
Guest Vocalists Zachary Stains, Jacqueline Milena, Hans Pieter Herman
November 7, 2019
92 Y at Lexington Avenue
Venue Calendar: https://www.92y.org/