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Marva Hicks, Sally Mayes, Judy Blazer
and John Barrowman in It's Better With a Band
(Photo: Mark Garvin)
It's almost enough to make you want to move to Philadelphia. As of this writing, I've seen three productions at the Prince Music Theater in Philly, all of them excellent. The first was a beautiful staging of Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins with a heartbreaking performance of the title role by Romain Frugé (who went on to The Full Monty). The second was a production of the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical Lady in the Dark starring Andrea Marcovicci that was so phenomenal, everyone I know who saw it hoped it would move to Broadway. (It didn't, but it sure should have). And now the Prince is presenting It's Better With a Band, a terrific musical revue showcasing the lyrics of David Zippel.

Though perhaps not as famous or as prolific as some other lyricists, Zippel is a very well respected practitioner of a very specific art form. His Broadway scorecard thus far consists of one hit (City of Angels, with music by Cy Coleman) and one flop (The Goodbye Girl, with music by Marvin Hamlisch). He has also provided lyrics for the animated films Hercules, Mulan, and The Swan Princess and is known for having crafted a considerable amount of special material for the great singer Barbara Cook along with songs for shows beyond Broadway. In short, his output makes him more than worthy of being revued. (An earlier version of It's Better With a Band was presented as a cabaret piece in New York way back in 1983, but many of the songs included in the Prince version were not even written back then.)

Director Joe Leonardo starts the show off in delightfully humorous fashion: As the four cast members -- John Barrowman, Judy Blazer, Marva Hicks, and Sally Mayes -- sing the title song of the revue, they pretend to be surprised and nonplussed by the fact that there's no band on stage. Under the circumstances, this may have been the only smart way to present the number, since it was originally written for Barbara Cook to sing at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra and it specifically references brass, violins, etc. -- which this production hasn't got. The singers start the song accompanied only by pianist-conductor-musical director Christopher Marlowe; then Susan Lerner (cello and guitar), Alexander Domschot (guitars and banjo), Steve Beskrone (acoustic and electric basses), and Roy Rakszawski (drums and percussion) hilariously run and and take their places just in time for the final chord.

Capitalizing on this strong opening, the cast moves through the program of songs with great assurance, not to mention loads of talent and charisma. Hicks offers a wryly funny rendition of "Camel's Blues," with music by Doug Katsaros, from an Off-Broadway musical based on Kipling's "Just So Stories." Written to be sung by "a camel with an attitude problem," this number is a.k.a. "The I'm-Much-Better-Than Anyone-I've-Ever-Met" blues. (At one point, the camel asks rhetorically: "Why in heaven was I born / So highborn?") Next up is Barrowman in a vocally lovely performance of the beautiful ballad "The Only Girl in the World" (music by Alan Menken); the fact that the number is staged as a comedy routine, with Barrowman dividing his attentions among all three of the female cast members, seems very odd until we realize that it's a setup for the following number, in which the ladies tell Barrowman in no uncertain terms "What You Don't Know About Women."

Speaking of beautiful ballads, the fabulous Judy Blazer does a bang-up job with "Born For You" (music by David Pomeranz). Later, she torches the place with "Another Mr. Right" (music by Jonathan Sheffer). Mayes shines most brightly in her powerhouse rendition of one of Zippel's most famous songs: "You Can Always Count on Me" from City of Angels. Among the comic highlights of the show are Hicks's and Mayes's performance of "Cold, Hard Cash," with music by Wally Harper (in which Zippel rather brilliantly rhymes "crow she ate" with "negotiate") and Hicks's "Make Me a Star," with music by Bryon Sommers (in which, at the end of the number, the singer turns out to be a waitress). Another laugh riot is "Does It Get Any Better Than This?" with music by Menken, starring Barrowman as an ultra-flaky, pretentious Hollywood type. (When the almost indescribably good looking actor peered out over his sunglasses during the number, one of my theatergoing companions remarked on his striking resemblance to Tom Cruise -- and this observation was from a straight man, folks!)

Adept as he is at comedy, Barrowman is also wonderfully persuasive in serious numbers. The song "Reflection" -- which includes the lyric "When will my reflection show who I am inside?" -- gains all sorts of extra resonance in his performance, only partly because it is being sung by a performer as classically handsome as this one. Similarly, Marva Hicks's "I Can Go the Distance" from Hercules (music by Menken) takes on new meaning(s) as sung by a woman instead of a man -- and a black woman, at that.

Sound amplification of the performers was somewhat spotty on the night I attended, as was the lighting (designed by Michael Gilliam), but that was very early in the run. Ray Klausen's set design is appropriately simple and effective. It's Better With a Band definitely deserves to have a life beyond the Prince, especially if this cast can be retained.

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