By Marcina Zaccaria
Birds of Paradise is a gem of a musical with Book by Winnie Holzman and David Evans and Lyrics by Wicked’s Librettist Winnie Holzman.
A Chekhov aficionado with an interest in clever lyrics, I confess that 1987’s Birds of Paradise has, for a long time, been a great listening experience. In Birds of Paradise, the cast of a theater group, The Harbor Island Players, seeks to put on a musical based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. It turns out that it’s not all the search for the snowy egret. Throughout the musical, ideas are challenged, the bond between mother and son is strengthened, and love and adoration are lost and found.
A recent performance at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below , produced by Robert Schneider, got off to a great start with up-tempo “So Many Nights,” a sort of manifesto for the small theater ensemble. It’s all worth it: the rehearsals, the failing relationships, and eventually, the euphoric triumphs. Soon, Nina, a leading actress in The Seagull, is reimagined. Brittney Johnson (Wicked, Beautiful) handles this role with grace. In “Every Day is Night” she sings, “I can picture light, every now and then, like a photograph, yellow and gold.” The singer shows a great appreciation of a frightened Nina, while choosing to feature the ingénue’s inner strength. This fresh interpretation includes the rich tones in her lower register, beautifully filling the room at Feinstein’s/ 54 Below.
Jeff McCarthy’s refined presence (not to mention, perfect hair) makes him stand out in this small, town drama as the Broadway actor counseling the younger playwright, played by Alex Wyse. Wyse is ambitious, cautious, and attentive in all the right ways in “It’s Only a Play,” making meaning out of each line. Harmonies sail through in the song, Bird of Paradise. Bonnie Milligan, Alli Mauzey, Nancy Opel present with perfect pitch and great conviction. Their performance had so much finesse that it made me wonder what it would have been like to have seen them on Broadway this year.
“Penguins Must Sing” is as determined as it is funny. With this selection, Bonnie Milligan, Andy Taylor, Steve Routman portray characters whose firm belief is in not wandering through the dark, hoping the wrong bird will fly. Steve Routman’s matter-of-fact delivery was so heartwarming, I had to laugh out loud. “You’re Mine,” is one of those brooding, ambitious songs, full of mature, intense emotion. A brilliant solo for an older actress, it is particularly welcome from Nancy Opel (Fiddler on the Roof, Urinetown).
After “Something New,” David Evans and Winnie Holzman appeared on stage to offer a few words and some bonus tracks. On drums was Joe Nero, on bass, Mary Ann McSweeney, and on piano, Larry Yurman. Great to hear the experiment of unheard songs, after hearing the tunes that had already succeeded off-Broadway.
Someone has got to find the time to put on Birds of Paradise again, as this performance proved that its quirky charm really withstands the test of time. Until then, we wait.
Photos: Maryann Lopinto