by Marilyn Lester
The Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y has celebrated the words and music of the Great American Songbook with a mix of live performance, education, and projected images over an astounding 45 seasons.
In the latest offering of the series, Sweepin’ the Clouds Away: Boom, Bust and High Spirits, program artistic director and host Robert Kimball has curated a show of “the best toe-tapping, mood-busting, uplifting music ever written.” Most of the 32 songs selected were written between 1929 and 1932, reflecting the progression of the Great Depression from bad to worse to dire.
Vince Giordano and his pianist Peter Yarin were co-music directors, leading the nine-piece Nighthawks band in authentic arrangements of the music. The performers, Broadway veterans Christine Andreas, Klea Blackhurst, Erin Dilly, John Treacy Egan, and Jason Graae, vividly brought to life the mood and feel of the era. Seated stage right at candle-lit tables evoking 1930s café society, the cast was deftly and seamlessly moved through their numbers by Stage Director David Garrison.
Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” for example, was sung in its two versions: v.1 written for the 1929 film of the same name (“Have you seen the well-to-do, up on Lennox Avenue?”) performed by Egan center stage, and v.2, “commercialized” with the location now Park Avenue for the 1946 film “Blue Skies,” sung with a comic shift to stage left.
Christine Andreas provided torch expertise with her soulful renditions of “Body and Soul” (music by Johnny Green, lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton) from the 1930 review, “Three’s a Crowd” and what is reputed to be Cole Porter’s personal favorite, “Love for Sale,” from the 1930 musical, “The New Yorkers.”
Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks took a solo turn with Duke Ellington’s lively, upbeat ensemble piece, 1931’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm, which Ellington said “is as close as it gets to sounding spontaneous.” Kimball introduced the piece noting that Ellington was the greatest musician of this era.
The naturally Mermanesque Klea Blackhurst belted out La Merman’s breakout number “I Got Rhythm” from Ira (words) and George (music) Gershwins’ mega-hit of 1930, “Girl Crazy,” while Erin Dilly, in “Ten Cents a Dance,” from the Lorenz Hart (words) and Richard Rodgers (music) 1930 musical “Simple Simon,” plaintively conveyed the despair of the taxi dancer lamenting her job. Lyrics & Lyricists perennial favorite, Jason Graae, proved his singing-dancing-acting and playing chops (the clarinet) on 1929’s “Just a Gigolo” (music by Leonello Casucci, original German lyrics by Julius Brammer, English lyrics by Irving Caesar) with continental flair.
Act One’s finale featured the entire cast singing Cole Porter’s 1930 “ode” to the Apple, from the musical “The New Yorkers” – “I Happen to Like New York,” written mid-Atlantic by an already homesick Porter on his way to Europe.
Act Two of Sweepin’ The Clouds Away began with Vince and the Nighthawks soloing on “Happy Feet” from the 1930 film, “The King of Jazz,” (music by Milton Ager and lyrics by Jack Yellen). Highlights of this second portion of the show included Christine Andreas’ bluesy “But Not for Me,” from the Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy,” and Klea Blackhurst’s second Merman turn with “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries” (Ray Henderson, music and Lew Brown, lyrics) from the review “George White’s Scandals of 1931.” Jason Graae and Erin Dilly sang a cheerful rendition of “I’ve Got Five Dollars” from the Rodgers and Hart musical “America’s Sweetheart” (1931), while John Treacy Egan led the way in “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (lyrics by Leo Robin and music by Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling) from the 1930 film, “Monte Carlo.”
Contrary to popular belief, “As Time Goes By” (music and lyrics by Herman Hupfeld) was not written for the 1942 film “Casablanca,” but was debuted in the 1931 musical “Everybody’s Welcome.” The entire cast sang this classic tune as their finale number, before leading the audience in a farewell sing-a-long, with 1931’s “Good Night, Sweetheart” (introduced in the U.S.A. by Rudy Vallee, lyrics and music by Ray Noble, Jimmy Campbell and Reginald Connelly).
Lighting design for Sweepin’ the Clouds Away was by John Kelly. Stage Manager was Lori Rosecrans Wekselblatt, and Assistant Stage Manager Natalie Price, under series Artistic Director, Deborah Grace Winer.
Sweepin’ the Clouds Away played at the 92nd Street Y from February 22nd to 24th. The next installment in the series is Getting to Know You, a celebration of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, playing on April 5th, 6th and 7th. The 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10128, 212-415-5500
*Photos: Richard Termine