by Mark Lingenfelter
The Broadway by the Year concert series at Town Hall is, in many ways, an embarrassment of riches. It’s an evening of musical theater songs introduced with a healthy dose of musical theater history and context by creator and host Scott Siegel. Though I’m partial to anything in the series featuring songs and shows written before the 1940s, I was happy to attend the 15th season’s final concert this past Monday night featuring Broadway musicals from 1991 to 2015.
In an evening written by Siegel, directed by Scott Coulter and musical directed by Ross Patterson, 27 songs were presented in chronological order (save for an early appearance from a 2015 musical as the second number). The two-and-half-hour concert featured many Broadway vets, many of which performed songs from shows and roles that they originated, alongside new talent featured in the Broadway By The Year Chorus—all accompanied by the Ross Patterson Little Big Band.
Larry Gatlin started off the evening, recreating “Look Around” from the 1991 musical The Will Rogers Follies, accompanying himself on guitar. For the second number, we skipped forward to 2015 with Tony Danza showing up to recreate “Out of the Sun” from this season’s Honeymoon in Vegas with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. The number exemplified one of the great aspects of the concert series: with no staging, props or costumes, the audience can simply hear the song. Just music and lyrics. Danza’s humor shined through.
And while I’m on the topic of comedy, Christina Bianco took the stage to sing “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins, but quickly turned the number into a medley of Mary Poppins songs sung with hysterical, spot-on impersonations of Julie Andrews, Kristin Chenoweth, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion and Bernadette Peters.
Siegel is always game to include tap dancing into his concerts and Broadway by the Year regular Jeffry Denman and Jimmy James Sutherland did just that with “Pennies from Heaven” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing)” respectively, representing two musical reviews, Swinging On a Star (1995) and After Midnight (2013). Another recurring Broadway by the Year highlight is the “unplugged” number. Klea Blackhurst stood center and sang, “I Got Rhythm” from the 1992 musical Crazy for You, an adaptation of the 1943 MGM film Girl Crazy. Without the aid of a mic, Ms. Blackhurst belted to the rafters and it was in this moment that I experienced what it is like to be engaged with a performer.
And while there were a few selections that didn’t quite land (an ensemble of what looked like college students singing Avenue Q’s “I Wish I Could Go Back to College” made me ask the question, “Where are you now?”), my favorite moments were when soloists stood at the mic and just simply sang and told the story through the song: Quentin Earl Darrington’s powerful “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime (2009 Broadway revival), Gay Marshall’s heartbreaking “It Never Was You” from Love Musik (2007), Sarah J. McMahon’s beautiful title song from The Light in the Piazza (2005) and last, but certainly not least, Randy Graff recreating her solo from A Class Act, “The Next Best Thing to Love” (2001).
Coming up on July 20 is Siegel’s annual Broadway Unplugged. Be sure not to miss this evening billed as “Great Show Tunes! Great Stars! Great (Big) Voices! No Microphones! The pure human voice—the way it used to be on Broadway.” Big voices scheduled to appear include Stephanie J. Block, Carolee Carmello, Matt Cavenaugh and more.