by Ryan Leeds
The 1930s was not a particularly bright decade for Broadway. Still reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and in the midst of the Great Depression, audiences were not as plentiful—nor as wealthy—as they had been in previous years. The financial pinch did however, spawn creativity and gave birth to music that has become woven into the fabric of our culture.
Scott Siegel, who produces and hosts his Broadway by the Year series, shone a spotlight on the era in musicals of the 1930s earlier this week at Town Hall. While President Roosevelt introduced two new deals in that period which would abate the effects of the financial crisis, Siegel and his music director Ross Patterson did little to infuse anything new or fresh into a functional, but generally evanescent evening of song and dance.
Siegel gathered Broadway talent that included Robert Cuccioli, Tonya Pinkins, Billy Stritch, Nellie McKay, Emily Skinner, and Brian Charles Rooney. McKay was the real standout, offering her usual dose of intelligence and quirkiness first in a self-accompanied ukulele version of “Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries” and later in a pensive rendition of “But Not for Me.” In the second act, she provided cheeky amusement with “You Made Me Love You” and dedicated it to Bernie Sanders. McKay concluded her all too short portion with the lovely, “Autumn in New York.”
Cuccioli opened the concert with “Begin the Beguine” and brought “Night and Day” from the 1932 Gay Divorce. Act II opened with him singing, “You and the Night and The Music” and the Jekyll and Hyde star ending the concert with “As Time Goes By.” Cuccioli didn’t seem particularly comfortable with any of the music and displayed a rather stodgy demeanor as he struggled to find many of the notes within his selections.
Pinkins and Skinner had some genuine moments, but neither of them seemed overly at ease with their songs either. Pinkins did however, deliver a gut-wrenching version of “Suppertime” from As Thousands Cheer. The song addressed an African-American woman’s grief over losing her husband, who had recently been lynched. It was the finest moment of the night. Skinner’s “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street” was also a pleasing exception, as she delivered it with much subtlety and sweetness.
Entertainment stalwart Strich accompanied himself with “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Comes Love”. Stritch possesses a natural ease and knack for this era of music and reminds us what makes these classics so appealing.
Siegel also introduced to two talented tap dancers; Luke Hawkins, who improvised a tap number during “I Wish I Were in Love Again” from Babes in Arms. Hawkins performed the duet with vocalist Phillipa Lynas. Michela Marino Lerman brought some sassy tap moves to the party as she joined Rooney in “I Get a Kick out of You.” With Rooney recreating the look of Will Ferrell’s character Ron Burgundy from the film Anchorman and Lerman sporting a halter top with skin tight, black and white patterned leotards, the pair were stylistically mismatched. Still Lerman displayed some mighty fine tap skills.
Another notable performance worth mentioning was by Michael Winther and guitarist Sean Harkness. The two created a gentle and simple rendition of “My Romance.”
Siegel is now in his 16th year of producing this series, and it’s a great idea, but Monday’s concert could have been richer with some tightening of patter, more exciting song selections, arrangements that pop, and stronger voices. Let’s hope that the next decade has more to offer.
Future Broadway by the Year performances include:
March 28 – Broadway Musicals of the 1950s
May 23 – Broadway Musicals of the 1960s
June 20 – Broadway Musicals of the 1970s
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.