by Alix Cohen
On the double anniversary of the New York Festival of Song (30 years) and NYFOS’s Founding Advisor, Leonard Bernstein (“nearly one hundred”), Co-Founder (with Michael Barrett) and Artistic Director, Steven Blier, has fulfilled a long nurtured dream to present Bernstein’s Songfest. The extremely eclectic Cycle, commissioned to celebrate America’s Bicentennial, is meant to embody diversity in our country’s past through artistic experience. It incorporates the musically and vocally set work of 13 poets ostensibly reflecting 300 years of history.
Act I, Blier tells us, is comprised of selections from Bernstein’s musical theater oeuvre containing “some of the characters you love.” Of course, emanating from Festival of Song, numbers chosen include several that were dropped from shows before opening and some of the most musically complex of the composer’s offerings in the genre. Characters may be familiar, but material is decidedly not. Only songs from the iconic West Side Story (lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) can justifiably be called well known.
“The Story of My Life” was replaced by “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” in Wonderful Town (lyrics Betty Comden/Adolph Green). Roz Russell (as older sister, Ruth) demanded material she described as “joke, joke, topper.” The number has texture but neither sheen nor humor and rests in self-pity. The new song is far more successful. Annie Rosen imbues this with too much stress.
“Ain’t Got No Tears Left” was to be the blues song in On the Town inexplicably heard at joint after joint as Gaby’s friends tried to cheer him up when he loses Miss Turnstiles. Too much a full blooded number in its own right, it was exchanged for a few generic, melodramatic lyrics …I’m ba looo…which don’t interfere. As performed by Lucia Bradford, who sails through an octave obstacle course with finesse, it emerges with guts and soul.
We hear three selections from the mostly unmelodic 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (lyrics-Alan Jay Lerner), a 100 year history of The White House apparently excluding the unapproachable Abraham Lincoln. “They used his hat,” quips Co-Founder/pianist Michael Barrett.
Blier cites this effort as “the Hindenberg of Bernstein’s career.” Music is convoluted, lyrics unlyrical. I gather from someone who saw the original that Broadway treatment helped mask failings. Here, operatic approach compounds them. Though I understand its politics reflect on today’s, this doesn’t seem sufficient reason to disinter the numbers. Bradford again shines brightly as does Miles Mykkanen whose talent rises over material. Justin Austin and Adrian Rosas are more about music than meaning.
Mykkanen opens the West Side Story portal tearing down the aisle with Tony’s robust “Something’s Coming.” Control is remarkable, spirit palpable. “A Boy Like That”/ “I Have a Love” are presented by Chelsea Shephard as Maria and Annie Rosen as Anita. Shephard’s beautiful soprano is expressive and sincere, perfect counterpoint to Rosen’s emphatic contralto. “Tonight Quintet” finds voices working splendidly together while, alas, too many words are lost to comprehension in a blend that needs snappier delivery.
Also featuring songs from Candide (lyrics- John Latouche and Richard Wilber) and Arias and Barcarolles (text by the composer). Though signs of character comprehension periodically appear, this part of the evening especially would have benefitted by a director.
Act II proffers Songfest. I’m afraid I’m not a fan. Music here seems to arbitrarily underscore lyrics muddling intention/meaning/mood. Good poems like the moving To What You Said (Walt Whitman) and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (Edna St. Vincent Millay)- evidently Bernstein’s favorite, i.e. cummings’ amusing if you can’t eat and Gregory Corso’s wry Zizi’s Lament are buried rather than enhanced. Note should be made of Chelsea Shephard’s lovely interpretation of A Julia de Burgos.
Proceedings moved smoothly. Blier’s introductions, anecdotes, and apt, sarcastic, political references buoyed the evening. The hall felt like a gathering of old friends.
“Take Care of This House,” (The White House), is sung by Abigail Van Buren to William Henry Harrison in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Blier tells us that when the Bernsteins moved out of The Dakota (apartment building), friends serenaded them with the number.
Photos by Cherylynn Tsushima
Kaufman Music Center and New York Festival of Song present
Take Care of this House: A Bernstein Celebration
Vocalists: Chelsea Shephard, Lucia Bradford, Annie Rosen, Miles Mykkanen, Justin Austin,
Piano: Michael Barrett and Steven Blier
Percussion: Barry Centanni and Taylor Goodson
Merkin Concert Hall November 7, 2017
New York Festival of Song: http://www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org/mch/series/new-york-festival-of-song/