by Susan Hasho
Deborah Grace Winer is presenting three new jewel box revues and calling it The Classic American Songbook Series at 54 Below. The series kicked off March 27 with “You Took Advantage of Me: Rodgers and Hart in Love.” Ms. Winer was the host as well as the creator and writer. Her narration was casual and entertaining but also infused with enormous knowledge of musical history and always laced with humor.
Richard Rodgers worked with his first partner, Lorenz Hart, from 1919 until Hart’s death, at 48, in 1943. As songwriters, they were at the center of the Jazz Age and also thrived at a time when women were coming into their own. Women had jobs, were unfettered in their fashion choices and out and about in New York City. According to Ms. Winer, these two music men were inveterate New Yorkers, though Lorenz Hart was more the urbane sophisticate. Rodgers was the optimist and Hart the man disappointed by life and love. Unintentional perhaps, fortunate for sure, their chemistry as songwriters achieved perfect Yin/Yang and musical genius. Rodgers’ music was full of thrilling optimism, and mixed with the depth and wit of Hart’s lyrics, their songs became hits that have endured.
Winer and director Mark Waldop created a show and venue that gave the music its due but really set the lyrics out to be heard in all their aching complexity. They brought on artists Debby Boone, Darius De Haas and Christiane Noll who each contributed a unique and stellar quality to each chosen song.
The trio, accompanied by John Oddo (Musical director and on Piano), Jay Leonhart (Bass) and James Saporito (Drums), opened with “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and then Debby Boone sang “Lover.” Darius De Haas’ easy-going soulful version of “You Took Advantage of Me” began to bring Rodgers and Hart’s timeless relevance forward; and the duet of “Where or When” with Darius and Christiane became a playful improvisation as well as a standard. The mock western song “Way Out West” (with Noll) is an example of sly writer Hart’s put down of cowboy and praise of the Upper West Side and the urban.
Debby Boone brought “You’re Nearer” very close and very personal. And again, the ease of the music and the slight hint of hurt in the lyric – “Leave me, but when you’re away/ you’ll know you’re nearer/ for I love you so” makes this song real and unforgettable.
“Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was performed by Noll with full-on original lyrics which really means she was as sexy as the authors intended. Winer spoke about The Jazz Age as being an island of the progressive between 1920 and 1930. And Larry Hart as a bon vivant, alcoholic poet— nevertheless or because of it—favored the dark irony which makes his contribution seem very modern, very “Sondheim.” “Glad to Be Unhappy” sung by De Haas with beautiful voice was a case in point—bittersweet.
Rodgers and Hart celebrated women, and once as Winer pointed out, you know that the “tramp” in the song really refers to “hobo,” the guys hitching rides on trains, etc., you know that “The Lady is a Tramp” means she’s free. It is a love song to freedom and Debby Boone gave it all that.
The show ended with the classic “Manhattan” And it turns out that, “it’s a song about summer slumming while the rich leave town” To quote: “And tell me what street/ Compares to Mott Street In July? /Sweet pushcarts gently gliding by…” Deborah Grace Winer treated us to amazing revelations, uncovered and exposed in this show, and wonderful artists along to express it. Rodgers and Hart never had it so good.
Photos: Bruce Cohen
Next in the Classic American Songbook Series: ‘Till There Was You’ – a Celebration of Barbara Cook
54Below – 254 West 54th Street (cellar)
Tickets & Information 646-476-3551