The Broadway Musicals of 1956 by Matthew Murray

    A new entry in the "Broadway by the Year" series is always worthy of celebration -- at least temporarily. Each installment of Scott Siegel's series at The Town Hall (now in its sixth season) showcases the highest highs of Broadway past and present, along with, sadly, the commensurate lows.

    The latest, "The Broadway Musicals of 1956," held on Monday night, was no exception. From the sublime stylings of two-time Tony nominee Marc Kudisch on songs like "If I Had My Druthers" (Li'l Abner) and "My Heart Is So Full of You" (from The Most Happy Fella, sumptuously sung unamplified with the evening's director, Emily Skinner) to the sexy comedy of singer-dancer Rachelle Rak in Mr. Wonderful's "I'm Available" (a number introduced by Chita Rivera), the show was always at its strongest when stressing the songs' inherent theatricality without going over the top.

    But under the rather broad direction, such moments were generally the exception rather than the rule. While an occasional bright flame of a number would melt Skinner's staging cheese (such as the opener, The Most Happy Fella's "Standing On the Corner," sung in flawless three-part harmony by Devin Richards, Brandon Cutrell, and John Treacy Egan), too many other attempts at striking sparks generated only cold. Chief among these was the second act opener, Candide's "Glitter and Be Gay," sort-of sung by Beauty and the Beast's Ashley Brown, who shriekingly demonstrated that without a comfortable E-flat, Cundegonde is not a suitable role to sing even in concert. Cutrell fell into two other Candide numbers, "You Were Dead You Know" (with Brown) and "It Must Be So" (alone), and fell flat on his face, vocally overparted in roles intended for legit voices rather than cabaret crooners.

    More often, though, "The Broadway Musicals of 1956" served as a disquieting reminder of how easy it is to squander talent in contemporary musical theatre. It's perhaps imprudent to ask why first-rate singers like Kudisch and Brent Barrett (wasted in a Higgins number from My Fair Lady, but much better used in Candide's "My Love" and The Most Happy Fella's "Joey, Joey, Joey") aren't cast in more musicals than they are, though at least that frees them to wow us with their talents here. It's likely also imprudent to ask that Christine Andreas not botch her lyrics for My Fair Lady's "Show Me," or that she tap into the youthful energy needed to keep "I Could Have Danced All Night" from being as earthbound as it was here. Then again, who could find fault with her plaintive performance of "The Party's Over" (Bells Are Ringing), a rich lesson in subtle vocal interpretation that would do well to be studied by, well, practically everyone else in the cast? And how difficult it is to stay disappointed at Richards for only having one solo ("Too Close for Comfort," from Mr. Wonderful), when he sells it to the rear mezzanine just as if he were the star who introduced it, Sammy Davis Jr.?

    One could easily find fault with the song selection, which weighed some shows too heavily (Candide with five songs, The Most Happy Fella with four) and others with none (Shangri-La and The Girl at the Bijou, listed in the program, were not represented at all). Still, inconsistencies aside, it's wonderful to have so many great songs to choose from so many great shows -- if only all theatrical concerts, or even all "Broadway by the Year" concerts, had such glorious concerns. And it's a fine excuse, as if any were needed, to return to the overstuffed year in a future edition to catch the straggling numbers that disappointingly, if unavoidably, fell through the cracks this time around.

    Monday, April 03, 2006 at 10:59 PM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    09/01/2008: By the Book

    06/27/2008: An Uncomfortable Visit to the Boundaries of Show Business

    05/29/2008: Revisiting Life on that Wicked—and Wonderful—Stage

    05/10/2008: Ticky Ticky Tock... Please Make it Stop!

    05/06/2008: Welcome Playbill Radio listeners!

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.