note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
Anyone who knows the history of the American Musical, knows AMERICAN CLASSICS is a class act. Over the past ten years, they’ve presented eight reconstructions of the first musicals written by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and many other notables. More often than not, those productions had been unperformed since their original Broadway run—so if you didn’t get to see THE BAND WAGON in 1931, this was your only chance. An interesting the movie retained nothing but the title.) When you see these historical productions, you get a glimpse of what wonders were to come from these fledgling composers.
AMERICAN CLASSICS doesn’t rest on their historical laurels. They set out to shine a bright light on the great American songbook and they’ve done just that with concerts around women composers, local Boston composers and programs of ragtime, which, along with jazz and musical comedies, are a uniquely American phenomenon.
Their 10th Anniversary CELEBRATION this past weekend highlighted numbers from shows they’ve put together over the years, including incomparable musicals like Berlin’s delightful Music Box Revues, Cole Porter’s hilarious FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN and Rogers & Hart’s gorgeous PEGGY ANN.
With Boston’s own Gilbert & Sullivan genius, Bob Jolly, introducing each number, there was no shortage of giggles. The best musical joke came from Irving Berlin in the form of the famous RIGOLETTO sextette (with musical help cribbed from AIDA, LaBOHEME, TALES OF HOFFMAN, not to mention DIE VALKYRIE) substituting “Yes, We Have No Bananas” for the usual librettos). Who would imagine that ham and bananas would make such delicious theater?
Forget “Danny Boy.” Tenor Eric Bronner brought tears to our eyes with an exquisite rendering of Stephen Foster’s “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” accompanied by Robert Humphreville on the piano. Just when you think you haven’t heard sweeter notes, along comes “A Tree in the Park” from Rogers & Hart’s PEGGY ANN, with Bronner and soprano, Mary Ann Lanier, spinning out the ambrosia, accompanied by Margaret Ullmer. If the measure of a company rests in the number of concert pianists it puts on the stage at one time, AMERICAN CLASSICS has no equal. Humphreville, Ulmer and Brad Conner could each hold the fort handsomely, but AC gives all three the chance to amaze us.
Conner’s considerable funny bone insures that he’ll be in front of the ivories, as well---and what a slick devil he is, and I mean that literally, in the Berlin “Pack Up Your Sins and Go To the Devil,” with back-up sizzle from Valerie Anastasio, Joei Marshall Perry and Lanier.
Ben Sears can get a laugh or two, it turns out, in any language: Witness his wry delivery of Dietz and Schwartz’ hilarious valentine, “I Love Louisa” --- and he can makes hearts flutter with the sublime Kern ballad, “All the Things You Are.” What’s most remarkable about AC is that these classically trained singers are as at home with musical comedy, and that’s no small feat when you consider how many opera singers have botched the national anthem. Speaking of patriotic songs, AC offered a rousing “Liberty Bell March” and for an encore, “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (for which, I’m ashamed, I only knew the parody lyrics). They were joined in the Souza pieces by Eli Newberger and his formidable tuba.
Ulmer and Newberger performed a rowdy rag by W.C. “Luckey” Roberts and Ulmer showed her syncopated side with a game Peter Miller in Scott Joplin’s vigorous and sultry “Pine Apple Rag.” Heather Peterson dallied with “Daddy Long Legs” and Anastasio steamed up the stage with George and Ira Gershwin’s torch song, “The Man I Love.” And that’s just the beginning. There were the delicious “Half Minute Songs” and the divine cakewalks but you’ll just have to see for yourself why AC is the real deal. Watch for their upcoming Gershwin and Berlin tributes, performed both in Lexington and Cambridge.