What do we think of when we think of the greatest Broadway musicals of the last hundred years? The answer to this question, of course, is quite subjective. If we go by composer/lyricist/producer Neil Berg – who continues his worldwide tour of Neil Berg’s 101 Years of Broadway that played the Music Center at Strathmore for one night this past weekend – greatness may be mostly synonymous with modern musicals that have gained worldwide popularity.
Shows like Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Chicago, Jersey Boys, Mamma Mia, Wicked, Jekyll and Hyde, Evita, and Cats are recognizable from here to Tokyo for one reason or another even by those who don’t know Stephen Sondheim from Jerry Herman (neither of whose works – I might add – were featured in this concert).
So, do we really need a concert devoted to tunes that have been done to death in touring venues across the country, have been featured in Hollywood blockbuster movie musicals, or are done in virtually every cabaret act?
Maybe. I guess it all depends on the audience.
This kind of concert might not appeal to those of us who see all of the latest Broadway musicals – even the flops like Joe Brooks’ In My Life or Bartram and Hill’s The Story of My Life – can expound on what makes the likes of ‘newer’ composers such as Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, and Jason Robert Brown so exquisitely talented, or can recall that weird show from 1922.
However, the concert does serve a purpose even if it isn’t an educational one. It generally entertains and encourages an appreciation for the American musical and the equivalent British imports – even if it most certainly doesn’t cover 101 years of Broadway.
Featuring sassy beltress Natalie Toro, the versatile Ron Bohmer, the jazzy and charismatic Carter Calvert, and two men known for their huge voices – Craig Schulman and Robert DuSold – Berg’s concert gives audiences a taste of the bombastic and splashy known Broadway musicals. To his credit, this concert is not of the cruise ship variety. All of the performers have legitimate Broadway credits – although some have not tread the boards on the Great White Way in years – and are more than capable of putting on an entertaining show full of spunk and pizazz. When these memorable vocals are combined with some stellar instrumental performances – Berg on piano, Roger Cohen on drums, Booker King on bass and Eugene Gwozdz on keyboard – the end result is mostly an auditory feast.
For instance, Toro gave her all – and then some – to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” and “Memory.” While her less-than-subtle performing style may be a bit much for an intimate cabaret venue, it was quite suitable for a hall as large as Strathmore, particularly when singing these songs sung by divas. Her high belt voice can certainly reach the rafters. I had the pleasure of seeing her in Jill Santoriello’s short-lived Broadway musical, A Tale of Two Cities, where she stopped the show with “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” and her turn in this concert reinforced my view that she has extraordinary and undeniable vocal talent.
Bohmer lent his versatile and controlled voice to the Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes off of You” (from Jersey Boys) among other popular hits. In every case, his performance was smooth, polished, and inviting. He also displayed formidable acting skills in Alan Menken’s cabaret ditty “Pink Fish.” While “Pink Fish,” – which examines the culture shock of someone moving to NYC to pursue musical theatre from a small, less-than-diverse town – didn’t exactly fit in the show since it was never performed on Broadway, it was a nice break (for this musical theatre junkie) from the other songs that have been done to death.
Calvert showcased her jazz-infused vocals in Kander and Ebb’s All That Jazz (from Chicago) and her contributions to the many group numbers (“Cell Block Tango,” also from Chicago, and the title song from Oklahoma – a rare foray into the Broadway of the 1940s and 1950s – among others) were definite highlights. Her crystal clear voice, which doesn’t require numerous riffs and runs to win an audience over, was certainly appreciated as was her showmanship. Her rendition of the Jule Styne’s standard “Don’t Rain on My Parade” (from Funny Girl) offered a masterclass on how to command the stage and own a song.
Schulman – who has perhaps the most gorgeous voice of all of the performers – won me over with his take on Frank Wildhorn’s “This is the Moment” (Jekyll and Hyde) and Boublil and Schonberg’s “Bring Him Home,” (Les Misérables). It’s unfortunate that in recent years most performers have chosen to ‘American Idol-ize’ the latter song, and Schulman’s performance reminded me again of how the song can be sung in such a way that is passionate and purposeful while displaying technically proficient vocals that would make many envious. DuSold’s performance of “Stars” (also from Les Misérables), likewise, achieved this delicate but necessary balance of powerful emotion and singing.
Although all of these numbers (and many more) were worth listening to, thanks to the talent involved, I must say that the overall concept of the show left a little to be desired even if one can put aside the fact that the set list wasn’t exactly representative of the last 101 years of Broadway.
While Berg’s joy of performing was delightful and, at times, infectious, he made errors that could not be overlooked when he, in the role of the emcee, gave the audience an overview of the history of Broadway. From stating that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I premiered on Broadway before South Pacific (it didn’t) and exaggerating the run length of his own Off-Broadway show The Prince and the Pauper, to downplaying the financial success of Stephen Schwartz’s shows between Godspell/Pippin and Wicked, his interpretation of the history of Broadway was suspect at best. One can probably chalk this up to human error that can be blamed on the strain of worldwide travel, but it’s still disheartening, considering he claimed that this ‘history lesson’ was a major feature of the show.
Further, when combined with a decision to include a beautiful piano composition that he wrote in memory of his father who passed away on Christmas – which, although exquisite had nothing to do with Broadway or even musical theatre – the entire event left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. There’s no need to be self-important or self-indulgent. The talent and the material can speak for itself.
This was a one-night only performance at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD – on March 24, 2012. For further information on Neil Berg’s 101 Years of Broadway and a list of upcoming tour dates, visit Neil Berg’s official Web site.