Ricky Ian Gordon
Ricky Ian Gordon
Anyone who believes the canard that the work of contemporary musical theater composers is generally lacking in melody should have been at Alice Tully Hall on Tuesday, March 13 for that evening's celebration of the music of Ricky Ian Gordon. This fellow is famous as one of the "three-named composers" (see also Jason Robert Brown and Michael John LaChiusa) who are either the hope or the bane of this great American art form, depending on one's taste. As a whole, the group has somehow developed a reputation for being unwilling or unable to write hummable tunes; but that's sheer nonsense, as Bright Eyed Joy: The Music of Ricky Ian Gordon proved beyond a doubt.

Yes, there are elements of minimalism in some of Gordon's songs. You'll find a greater use of dissonance, certainly, than in a typical tune by Richard Rodgers or Cole Porter. And Gordon's melodic structures are sometimes so complex that musically unsophisticated audience members might not be able to hum them at intermission. On the other hand, the composer also embraces fairly simple, non-intimidating melodic threads that can be easily grasped and enjoyed by people who have had not a whit of musical education or training.

At Tully Hall, the best possible case was made for Gordon's oeuvre by a cast of musical theater, opera, and concert singers that one might hope to encounter only in one's wildest, most satisfying dreams. Kristin Chenoweth, returning to the New York stage after a hiatus spent largely on the West Coast, was an audience favorite as she soloed on two songs dating from 1999: "Just an Ordinary Guy" (lyrics by Langston Hughes and Gordon) and "Run Away" (lyrics by Gordon). She also duetted delightfully with Judy Blazer (fabulous!) on "I Love Electro" from Sitting on the Edge of the Future (lyrics: Bill Solly), in which two women kvell over a robot butler played on this occasion by Gordon himself; and Chenoweth's gleaming soprano shone in the ensemble finales of Act One (the glorious "Travel Quintet" from States of Independence, lyrics by Tina Landau) and Act Two ("Joy" from Genius Child/Only Heaven, lyrics by Langston Hughes).

But the talent bar was set so high for the evening that, believe it or not, Chenoweth didn't steal the show. Brian d'Arcy James, on a night off from Conor McPherson's The Good Thief, displayed gorgeous vocal tone and unlimited charisma in the world premiere of the title song from Shimmer (a new musical based on the novel by Sarah Schulman, with lyrics by Michael Korie) and in a duet with the magnetic Billy Porter on another title song, this from the flawed but unforgettable Dream True (lyrics: Tina Landau). Adam Guettel--who really has no right to sing and/or look the way he does, given his own brilliant talents as a composer/lyricist--showed in "We Will Always Walk Together" from Dream True that he could have a great career as a performer if (God forbid!) he ever chooses to throw aside his pen and his music paper.

A measure of Gordon's wonderful eclecticism is the fact that the classical/opera singers on hand for the concert--Camellia Johnson, Monique McDonald, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and Chris Pedro Trakas--seemed as much at home as the musical theater folks. Johnson and McDonald really cooked in their "Summer" duet (lyrics by Gordon), and the latter diva topped one of the ensembles with a high note so powerful and pure that I thought the roof of Tully Hall might blast right up into the innards of the Juilliard School.

One of the best ideas of the concert, directed by Gabriel Barre, was to have the magnificent actress Cherry Jones read verses by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dorothy Parker, W.S. Merwin, and Jane Kenyon immediately before Gordon's respectful yet highly original settings of those poems were performed. Particular highlights among these selections were Millay's "Souvenir" (sung by Lieberson) and Merwin's "Otherwise" (sung by Guettel).

A 10-piece orchestra played beautifully throughout under music director Ted Sperling. The performers were sensibly miked, thanks to sound designer Scott Stauffer. The glittery audience (I spotted Terrence McNally, Michael Mayer, and Andrew Lippa, among others) loved every minute of the concert, as well they should have. It's a pity that more of Gordon's music hasn't yet been recorded; this reviewer, for one, will be sure to snap up anything that's issued, posthaste.