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David Friedman and the cast of Listen To My Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Broadway and Off-Broadway musical revues based on the work of a single composer have become as rare as Susan B. Anthony dollar coins, but they're still money in the bank when they're done well. Listen To My Heart: The Songs of David Friedman not only does justice to the eponymous writer's work, it does justice to the expectations of a musical theater audience starved for the songwriting verities of the golden past. David Friedman comes from the classic musical theater school that asks first and foremost of its practitioners, "Give us a melody." He is a wonderful melodist -- and the revue of his songs that opened last night Upstairs at Studio 54 has five wonderful singers who help bring his songs to life.

Friedman has been both accused of and adored for writing sentimental, uplifting anthems such as "Trust the Wind," We Can Be Kind," and "Help Is on the Way." With songs like these he does, indeed, walk a tightrope between faith and schmaltz. But it's a mistake to think of Friedman strictly in these terms, because he has written so many different kinds of tunes; Listen To My Heart features 27 of his songs, and hearing so many of them performed together should soften, if not dispel, the misconception.

True, Friedman starts the show himself by singing "Trust the Wind," a number that has a sweeping, majestic melody but an irritating lyric that essentially says to the listener, "What, me worry? The wind will solve all my problems!" Fortunately, once Friedman and his cast blow past that song, the show catches fire -- ignited by director Mark Waldrop.

The songs that follow are creatively arranged and staged to build a variety of dramatic and comic arcs that have wit, style, and character. For instance, Alix Korey sings "He Comes Home Tired" (lyrics by Muriel Robinson), a housewife's expression of love for and pride in her man. Korey gives it dignity and depth, performing it as her husband -- played by Joe Cassidy -- sits with his back to the audience and his head nodding in exhaustion. When Korey exits, Cassidy leaps to his feat, makes sure she's gone, and then sings this warning: "If You Love Me, Please Don't Feed Me" (lyrics by David Friedman/Deborah Boudreau/Scott Barnes). Next comes Korey's topper, resonating from a lyric reference in Cassidy's song: She returns to claim "I'm Not My Mother" (lyric by Muriel Robinson). This is the first of several times that Korey has the audience howling with laughter.

Friedman's comedy songs are, in fact, the show's biggest revelation. His best known work in that genre is "My Simple Wish." This endlessly funny (and honest!) number will forever be associated with Alix Korey's unmatchable rendition, which stops the show here. Also surprising are some of Friedman's darker, more dramatic numbers; most notable among them is "Catch Me," stunningly performed by Cassidy and staged to perfection by Waldrop.

Anne Runolfsson and Michael Hunsaker
in Listen To My Heart
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Much more often, Friedman is thought of as a writer of romantic tunes. These are well represented in Listen To My Heart by the sexy coupling (literally) of two songs. The sequence begins with "You're Already There," performed by Michael Hunsaker, who dreams of falling in love. It's followed by Anne Runolfsson singing "What I Was Dreamin' Of," during which she and Hunsaker start canoodling on top of the piano. They manage to stay focused on the song even as they go at it hot and heavy; it's funny and sexy and very musical, all at the same time. Later in the show, Runolfsson gets her best solo opportunity with "Nothing in Common," sung as she calls off the relationship with Hunsaker. The song is full of understated longing and she performes it beautifully.

Allison Briner, who has been known to do a dead-on Bernadette Peters impression, plays it straight in this revue and puts over some of Friedman's most passionate songs with brio. From "My White Knight" to "We Live on Borrowed Time," she sings expressively and with great warmth. Michael Hunsaker has a big, booming baritone that he uses to great advantage when he teams with Runolfsson for "Two Different Worlds." The entire cast is excellent, each singer bringing something entirely different to the musical table -- and they sound like a gigantic choir when they sing as an ensemble. We only wish that the show's title tune wasn't performed as a group number; it's such a personal song that it might be much better delivered as a solo.

Friedman spends most of the show sitting stage center, playing either the piano or the synthesizer, and he is a charming presence throughout. His ego is never on display but his talent most certainly is; his modesty in singing only at the very beginning and end of the show points up his graciousness. Perhaps that modesty comes from confidence: Listen To My Heart is, by far, the best presentation of David Friedman's work to date.

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