Aside from its star-studded cast, the show is notable for the fact that, at 37 pieces, the Encores! orchestra is even larger than usual. Surrounded by a sort of band shell, the expert musicians produce an alternately lush and exciting sound with minimal amplification. In these days of dwindling orchestral forces on Broadway, this concert would be worth the price of admission even if it had no singers at all; but it does, and most of them perform magnificently. Here's a report on the first of three performances, held yesterday afternoon.
After the playing of a "City Center Overture" that was especially arranged and orchestrated for the theater's 50th anniversary in 1993 by the great Jonathan Tunick, the concert began with the effervescent Sandy Duncan explaining that City Center would not have existed but for the efforts of former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Aptly, the first sung number of the show was "The Name's LaGuardia" from the Jerry Bock-Sheldon Harnick musical Fiorello!, with Jerry Zaks (once a performer, now a director) in the title role. Zaks missed a vocal entrance at one point but conductor Rob Fisher, resident musical director of the Encores! series, got things back on track and the number was a hit.
There followed a cornucopia of selections from shows that have occupied the City Center Stage at one time or another. Erin Dilly oversold the comedy of "Mister Snow" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel but sang beautifully. The golden voiced baritone Ron Raines led a lusty ensemble of men through "The Riff Song" from The Desert Song and then took the solo spotlight with "One Alone" from that same wonderful Sigmund Romberg score. Walter Bobbie, another actor turned director, was a delight as Mr. Twimble in "The Company Way" from Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. His J. Pierrepont Finch, Denis O'Hare, seemed a bit tentative here but was charming in another number from the same show: "Been a Long Day," with Emily Skinner as Smitty and Erin Dilly as Rosemary Pilkington. Though Marin Mazzie might seem an odd substitute for Ethel Merman, she offered a persuasive soprano rendition of "I Got Lost in His Arms" from Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun following a performance of that show's "Moonshine Lullaby" by the smooth-as-silk quartet of Darius de Haas, Bernard Dotson, André Garner, and Eric Jordan Young.
Next up were two musical questions from the Kurt Weill-Langston Hughes opus Street Scene: "Wouldn't You Like to Be on Broadway?" (seductively sung by Marc Kudisch) and "What Good Would the Moon Be?" (passionately rendered by Harolyn Blackwell). The de Hass-Dotson-Garner-Young quartet sang and danced its way through "The Begat," one of my favorite numbers from Finian's Rainbow (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg). "Song of a Summer Night," one of four selections in the concert drawn from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, was ethereally sung by soloist Tony Capone and the ensemble.
Although Jason Danieley and Laura Benanti made some very strange acting choices in "Almost Like Being in Love" from Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, they sang so thrillingly -- especially at the song's climax -- that all was forgiven. This was followed by an addition to the printed program: Faith Prince in "Adelaide's Lament" from Guys and Dolls, a welcome reprise of the delightful performance that created such a stir when that Frank Loesser show was revived on Broadway in 1992. The first act finale was a goosebump-inducing performance of the "Tonight" ensemble from West Side Story with Kudisch as Riff, Blackwell as Maria, Danieley as Tony, Norm Lewis as Bernardo, and Bebe Neuwirth as Anita, backed by the male chorus.
After the intermission came another fabulous orchestral piece arranged and orchestrated by Tunick: "The Encores! Overture," created for last year's 10th anniversary concert. The first singing voice heard in Act II was that of Simone, who took a lot of liberties with the vocal line of "Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum" from Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein's Broadway musical adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera Carmen. (The audience certainly didn't seem to mind; they gave her an ovation.) This was followed an only slightly edited version of the first scene of The Most Happy Fella: "Ooh, My Feet," a comic showcase for Skinner, into "Somebody, Somewhere," wistfully delivered by the vocally and visually stunning Benanti.
Fans of The Most Happy Fella were thrilled that yet another selection from that great score -- a snippet of "Standing on the Corner" -- was performed by de Haas, Dotson, Garner, and Young in their final appearance as a quartet in the show. Next came Bebe Neuwirth's wonderfully wry performance of "Zip" from Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey. (Neuwirth had scored big-time with this number when Encores! presented the whole show in concert several years ago.) Next, hostess Sandy Duncan offered a warm reminiscence of the late City Center doyenne Jean Dalrymple, then brought the house down with "I'm in Love With a Wonderful Guy" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. That number was hard to top, but Walter Bobbie and ensemble succeeded in doing so with "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat" from Guys and Dolls. The concert ended in stirring fashion with Betty Buckley's intense rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "This Nearly Was Mine" (from South Pacific) into "You'll Never Walk Alone" (from Carousel), backed by that large orchestra and full chorus.
The first performance of the concert was not 100% polished; lyrics were sometimes paraphrased and there was a tendency of the part of several singers to push ahead of the orchestra. One might attribute this to the fact that Rob Fisher was conducting behind the soloists but there were two closed-circuit television monitors mounted at the front of the mezzanine in order to relay his beat to those singing downstage, who would have done well to watch them more closely. Logos, photos, etc. from the sampled shows were projected on a screen above the orchestra for the Sunday matinee but, apparently, these projections were cut from the subsequent performances. (This is just as well; some of the images weren't framed properly, and Call Me Madam was misspelled as ...Madame.) While the amplification of the singers was fine overall, the sound guy(s) seemed to be flummoxed by the extra-powerful voices of Blackwell and Raines. (Fellas, if the sound is so loud that it begins to distort, all you have to do is TURN IT DOWN!) Finally, although director Graciela Daniele bears some responsibility for those weird acting choices in the Benanti-Danieley and Mazzie-Danieley duets, she deserves a lot of credit for keeping the huge show moving smoothly; it must have been a logistical nightmare.
The criticisms above should be taken seriously, but not too seriously; the Encores Bash! is only the most recent triumph in a series that has become an essential part of New York City's cultural life. How fitting that Encores! was born and continues to thrive at City Center, a venue that has flourished beyond what one assumes were Fiorello H. LaGuardia's wildest expectations.