The Songbook Series at Joe's Pub has been offering the work of well-known musical theater writers like William Finn, David Zippel, and (from the past) Marc Blitzstein. Most recently, the Pub--under the direction of Wiley Hausam--presented the compositions of William Bolcom (music) and Arnold Weinstein (lyrics) in a revue of their theatrical tunes and trunk songs called The Last Lousy Moments of Love. Character-driven numbers formed the backbone of the revue, and they were often witty, piercing songs that were anything but lousy. Slightly more than half of the selections came from popular operas penned by the team, including bits from Casino Paradise, Great Shot, and Wind in the Willows.
William Bolcom is a well-established composer/musician, but most of his work has not been for the mainstream musical theater. Listening to his melodies (and sometimes his non-melodies) tells you that he's not a Broadway baby; the musical themes are complex and sophisticated in a distant sort of way, the work on the whole more intellectually acute than emotionally robust. On the other hand, Arnold Weinstein's lyrics have some of the entertaining verve of Sondheim and Finn, with rhymes that are often surprising and incisive. Whether serious or smart-mouthed, these lyrics are always fueled by emotion as they reveal or purposefully hide character.
It was no accident that the Bolcom/Weinstein show at Joe's Pub, conceived and realized by Scott Griffin, was cast with actors who sing rather than singers who might (or might not) act. The chosen songs require performers who can live the lyrics, and that's exactly what David Greenspan, Lewis J. Stadlen, and Mary Testa did. Greenspan was the most unusual casting choice made by Griffin, but a very smart one. The actor is best known for his intense, large performances of edgy material; no wonder, then, that the dramatic musical/monologue numbers went to him. For instance, immediately after Mary Testa's exuberantly comic version of "My Father, the Gangster" from Casino Paradise, Greenspan countered as her sibling, singing and talking his way through the bitter and biting "Great Man's Child." He was also blistering in his dark rendition of a song called "George," the show's penultimate number.
Both Stadlen and Testa come from the musical comedy tradition, and their witty, wonderful contributions brought a knowing humor to the proceedings. Performing the musical tone poem "The Actor," Stadlen was to-die-for funny; additionally, he found the comic cutting edge of the philosophically winsome number "The Thing Itself." Testa performed humorous songs as well as the occasional romantic ballad, dominating the Joe's Pub stage every time and in every style. She was sly and sexy while singing "Toothbrush Time" and just plain thrilling as she wailed "Night, Make My Day." (When will she have her own solo night at Joe's?) All three performers were intelligently supported by the driving musical direction and piano accompaniment of Joshua Rosenblum.