Playing It Again

Because these are, officially, staged readings, the actors must carry their scripts while speaking or singing, a setup from which the series gets some of its funniest business. Another is the orchestra's presence on stage, which often, perhaps too often, lures Fisher into batonic byplay with a show's comics. The audience, by now addicted (the series is in its fifth year), loves such foolery, which, though hardly relevant to the work at hand, does evoke the free spirit, the sense of fun shared with the spectators, that used to be one of the Broadway musical's most vital elements, a key to its spontaneity.

Randy Graff and Nathan Lane in Do Re Mi: broadening the horizons of the vernacular.
Gary Goodstein
Randy Graff and Nathan Lane in Do Re Mi: broadening the horizons of the vernacular.


"Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert"
City Center

1999 season (closed):

Babes in Arms
By George Abbot, Lorenz Hart, and Richard Rodgers

Ziegfeld Follies of 1936
By David Freedman and Ira Gershwin, music by Vernon Duke

Do Re Mi
By Garson Kanin, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne

In dealing with the substance that once moved through the spontaneous life stream, "Encores!" inevitably has a less even record. With shows that demand big, classically trained voices it can make you wonder about the quality of today's Broadway singing. On other occasions, the singing's solid, but the comedy or the story may be messily treated. And at times you must face the fact that certain phenomena are unrecapturable: Wonderful as Mary Testa or Randy Graff may be (and are), there will never be another Fanny Brice or Nancy Walker. Luckily, there are many miracle moments in which the old material and the new performer are a perfect match: Testa moaning a mock torch song, Melissa Rain Anderson belting "Way Out West," Nathan Lane zipping off a number that requires him to mimic an entire studio full of '30s film stars, Graff socking out the hilarious "Adventure," Karen Ziemba and the Walton brothers hurtling through a bone-rattling dance— after five years, the list is a long one. What links these items? Each is a match of equals, of performer meeting material; direction and choreography are only the marriage brokers, while design— necessarily minimal— is only accesory to the event. In other words, "Encores!" and its offspring get the theater's priorities right, while Broadway no longer does. Directing can make lovely images appear onstage, but images hang in art galleries; a great personality singing a great song can make you laugh or cry or think, or even all three at once. When the musical was at its best, its songs were intended to be great, and were written for great personalities to perform. As "Encores!" keeps proving, we have plenty of such personalities among us. All we need is a few good songs, and a script with some reasonably good excuses to sing them. Then rescuing Broadway is only a matter of clearing away all the visual and sonic sludge.

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