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Stairway to Paradise

Encores! concludes its season with an effervescent salute to the theatrical revue. logo
Christopher Fitzgerald, Kristin Chenoweth, and
Kevin Chamberlin in Stairway to Paradise
(© Joan Marcus)
It's altogether common to leave a City Center Encores! production thinking, "They don't write 'em like that anymore." It's a sentiment sure to be shared upon exiting Stairway to Paradise, Encores! first original production in its history, which spotlights the work of over 35 composers and lyricists in a salute to the theatrical revue.

If only a handful of moments in this consistently effervescent show rise to the level of Dom Perignon, most are at least as bubbly as a glass of Moët. Conceived by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel in honor of the 100th anniversary of The Ziegfeld Follies -- though not a single number from those shows are sung until the surprise encore -- Stairway to Paradise cleverly utilizes almost 50 years of revue material to paint a portrait of America from the pre-World War I era to the beginning of the prosperous 1950s, touching even on such serious social issues as lynching and unemployment.

Nevertheless, the emphasis is squarely on fun, frivolity, and glamour -- thanks in large part to a dazzling and extensive array of costumes provided by the brilliant William Ivey Long and the snappy staging of director Jerry Zaks and choreographer Warren Carlyle. The show's musical director, Rob Berman, does a fine job in his Encores! debut.

Unlike the real revues of yesteryear, Stairway to Paradise consists almost exclusively of songs, with only one revue sketch in each act. The second-act bit, Jean Kerr's "Gorilla Girl," is rather over-extended with a surprisingly flat punch line. As for the first act sketch, Paul Gerard Smith's "The Yellow Peril," from 1924's Keep Kool, it's a bit hard to judge its merit, since the show's headliners -- Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin Chamberlin, and Christopher Fitzgerald -- cracked up repeatedly during it. (And who could blame them when Chamberlin's toupée fell off his head!)

Most importantly, the show encompasses all the archetypical personalities of the revue format. For example, there's the tenor (the smooth-voiced J. Mark McVey), the torch singer (British musical star Ruthie Henshall, who scores big with her second-act number, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"), the song-and-dance man (Michael Gruber, an appealing mix of Jack Buchanan and Gene Kelly), and the African-American tap dancer (the sensationally limber Kendrick Jones).

And yes, there's the African-American diva, here in the personage of Capathia Jenkins, who stopped the show nightly in Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. She does it again -- twice in fact -- with a naughty, bawdy "My Handy Man Ain't Handy Anymore" and a moving "Supper Time." And there could hardly be a more adorable set of young lovers than Jenn Gambatese (happily freed for the moment from Tarzan) and Shonn Wiley, who delight with delicious renditions of "Manhattan" and "Rhode Island Is Famous For You."

The three major stars have a wonderful chemistry working together, as evidenced by a hilarious rendition of "Triplets" (from The Band Wagon). Still, they're most effective in their individual moments. Chamberlin's apex happens towards the end of the first act with an aching "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime," while Fitzgerald's brightest minutes are during "Josephine Please No Ring on the Bell," in which he deftly impersonates an Italian mother and father.

Not surprisingly, the top-billed Chenoweth is given the most to do, and the good news is that this ever-inventive actress-singer gives all she has. Further, she is allowed to display the full range of her talents from coloratura riffs to jazz singing. But even with her best material, the magic doesn't fully happen -- through little fault of her own.

For example, it would have been wiser to let Chenoweth just sing "Dancing in the Dark" -- which she does beautifully -- without competing with the actual dancing of Barrett Martin and Holly Cruikshank (who, good as they are, simply cannot match Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse). She's also been directed to rush through "Guess Who I Saw Today," which functions as the show's 11 o'clock number. And I think Viertel miscalculated by not allowing her to sing "If," the showstopping number from Two on the Aisle, which is already a staple of her concert performances.

Its flaws aside, Stairway to Paradise is a most worthy conclusion to Encores' strongest season in many years, a loving remembrance of a lost art form, and another gentle reminder that, yes, they don't write 'em like they used to.

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