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Leslie Uggams in the Encores! Bash
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Yowza, 1905 was some year for Broadway! Jule Styne was born; so were Marc Blitzstein, Dorothy Fields, and Harold Arlen. Frederick Loewe came into this world in 1904, but that's close enough. This year's edition of the annual City Center Encores! Bash was built around these five giants, with Rob Fisher conducting some three dozen of the best pit musicians in New York, using original orchestrations wherever possible. Fold in a starry lineup, some witty staging and choreography by Rob Ashford, and you have a show that probably could have run for years instead of just for two evening performances and a matinee.

It seems incredible now, with Dracula employing, what, six musicians (half on synth) and Brooklyn making do with a small handful of extremely loud instruments, but audiences used to take their seats at the Winter Garden nightly and hear something very like Fisher's rendition of the overture to Funny Girl (orchestrations by Ralph Burns). The brassy "Nicky Arnstein" leitmotif, those soulful strings caressing "People," the percussion booming out the beat to "Don't Rain on My Parade" -- back then, it was just another night at the theater. The Encores! performance gave even those who know this overture by heart -- and you know who you are -- the chance to savor harmonies and countermelodies that aren't so apparent on the cast album. Much of the concert was like that, with the familiar made new through expert conducting and performance, plus some thrilling rediscoveries among the batch of more obscure works.

Consider "A Modest Maid," penned by Blitzstein for The Littlest Revue but so risqué that it couldn't possibly have been recorded in 1956. A pseudo-operatic ode to "lechery" sung by a lovely lady who smirks that "archery is for the arch and butchery for the butch," it was sung here by Christine Ebersole, who savored every joke without overselling. Or "You're a Builder-Upper," from Life Begins at 8:40, an Arlen-Harburg-Gershwin syncopated specialty that has been waiting all these years for Noah Racey and Nancy Lemenager to perform it. My, how Racey has grown! A bit tentative starring in Never Gonna Dance last season, he now knows how to hold a stage, sell a song, and stop a show. He and Lemenager, gingerly negotiating a musician-crammed proscenium and at one point pas de deuxing atop the grand piano, could have danced all night if the audience had had its way. Or "My Own Morning," from Hallelujah, Baby!, with original star Leslie Uggams sounding not very different than she did in 1967 and now even savvier at shaping a lyric.

If there was an odd man out in this celebration, it was Blitzstein -- a wonderful composer-lyricist-orchestrator who, unlike his colleagues, didn't concentrate on writing ingratiating, catchy, feel-good songs. Nevertheless, his unsentimental "Nickel under the Foot," from The Cradle Will Rock, was given a smart, understated reading by Victoria Clark; and his "I Wish It So," from Juno, won a definitive interpretation by Rebecca Luker. Always golden-toned, Luker has become quite a singing actress. When she concluded the song with "It's the unrest inside me...and I think I'll go mad," it appeared that she really might do so.

Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa
in the Encores! Bash
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
From Styne, Arlen, and Loewe came more traditionally melodic material. Did you know that "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot has a verse? Did you know that Brent Barrett was born to sing it? (Yes, you probably did.) Barrett outmatched a vocally uncertain Burke Moses in "They Call the Wind Maria" from Paint Your Wagon, but what a pleasure to hear a full male chorus and the great Ted Royal arrangement on one of Broadway's most stirring anthems of horniness. (Paint Your Wagon is such a natural for a full Encores! presentation. When will they get around to it?) Victoria Clark brought the house down with a fervent "From This Day On" (from Brigadoon), and the reunited Hairspray team of Harvey Fierstein and Dick Latessa demolished what was left of it with an underplayed, nearly uncamped "I Remember It Well" (from Gigi).

Really, there were too many special moments to list. If Encores! ever does High Button Shoes, we will accept no one but David Garrison and Karen Ziemba re-creating Jerome Robbins's original soft-shoe choreography for "I Still Get Jealous." I've never cared much for Seesaw, but Sara Gettelfinger's torrid "Welcome to Holiday Inn," with hot Ashford choreography and a lithe troupe of dancing boys, made a pretty good case for it. In "Buds Won't Bud," it turned out that Luker can scat like a soprano Ella Fitzgerald. (But don't expect Encores! to dust off Hooray for What.)

Other numbers didn't quite land as intended. The adorable Anne Hathaway wrung every ounce of humor and charm out of "It's a Perfect Relationship" from Bells Are Ringing but she needs more vocal polish. Christine Ebersole could be an intriguing Mama Rose in Gypsy, but "Everything's Coming Up Roses" doesn't sit comfortably in her range, and Fisher seemed to be rushing it. Debbie Gravitte did her belting thing in "Don't Rain on My Parade" (from Funny Girl) and "Poor Everybody Else" (from Seesaw), brassily as ever but with her usual lack of nuance. And "A Cow and a Plough and a Frau," the minor-hit song from Dorothy Fields' and Morton Gould's Arms and the Girl (1950), didn't need to be cruelly mocked with visual aids -- though David Garrison sang it straightforwardly and well.

Still, the good outweighed the less-good by a few megatons. Oddly, of the five writers honored, only Dorothy Fields actually figures in the upcoming Encores! season: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with some of her most characterful lyrics and perhaps Arthur Schwartz's finest score, will launch the series on February 10. Judging from the talent, finesse, and sheer joyfulness of this year's Bash, February can't come too soon.

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