Brooklyn to Broadway with Randy Graff (review)

“Made in Brooklyn…Bound for Broadway” is the cabaret performance by Randy Graff that played Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater as the most recent entry in its Barbara Cook Spotlight series.

You see, before Brooklyn became the hive of creativity it now has become — back, as Graff put it, when “Brooklyn was Brooklyn” — it was a net exporter of talent. And this program effortlessly fills an evening with material generated by Kings County ex-pats, among whom Graff counts herself.

The evening provided the pleasures you expect from the Spotlight series: the opportunity to get to know better a wonderful singing actor, and the chance to hear some familiar music performed in a less familiar context.

Randy Graff (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center)

Randy Graff (Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center)

When the actor is as accomplished and as skillful as is Graff, you also hear familiar lyrics as if for the first time. When the set is led as masterfully as Graff’s was by Music Director Tim Weil, you’ll wish you had these versions on a CD somewhere so you could revisit them.

Graff told us that the Kennedy Center is one of her favorite places, and the site of two of the “greatest experiences” of her career. The first was the pre-Broadway run of Les Misérables. (She was its original Fantine). During the second (A Little Night Music as part of the Center’s Sondheim Celebration in 2002), she took a busman’s holiday to see Barbara Cook’s act, so this concert gave her the feeling of coming full circle, she told us.

The songs included a Harry Nilsson song (“Remember”) that Cook does on her second Carnegie Hall album. (Graff and Weil paired it with “Neverland” from Peter Pan). That followed a truly beautiful rendition of the old standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Graff’s grandmother was a fan of the old Lawrence Welk show, as were my grandparents), the first number of the night that was so fresh that it felt like a revelation.

I loved the 60s medley, which included a swinging version of “Bosa Nova” (you remember, that’s what you can blame it on) and which closed with “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” — who knew Neil Sedaka could feel so cool?

“Comes Once in a Lifetime,” with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Brooklyn-bred Comden would sing it, Graff told us) was the occasion for marvelous piano work by Weil, who, we later learned, is married to Graff. He was alone in support of the Missus, and so his shoes on the stage floor and knuckles on the piano became, when needed, the evening’s rhythm section.

Graff’s move to Staten Island and her early crush on a boy who she described as a tall John Denver inspired the best take I’ve ever heard on “Close to You,” which began a second period medley that ended with a haunting, gorgeous “Alfie.” That song, from the film about a cad, doesn’t have a traditionally romantic lyric for a pop song, but was given a lovely, clear, compelling account.

“Alfie” preceded Graff’s recounting of being introduced to another Brooklyn singer. (Her name is Barbra). Graff listened to a friend’s Streisdand album, got chills, and realized, for the first time, that emotional truth could be communicated through the voice.

Then followed Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” I’d rather hear Graff sing it now than thirty years ago, and rather hear her sing it (sorry Ms. Hathaway) than anyone else I can think of at the moment.

Graff’s other big Broadway role was her Tony-winning turn in City of Angels, and she recalled that show’s lyricist David Zippel running into her at Lincoln Center and telling her that composer Cy Coleman and he had that day written her a show-stopper. “No pressure,” she quipped before delivering the one-actor, two-character “You Can Always Count on Me.”

Graff was also Tony-nominated for A Class Act, the show about the lyricist Edward Kleban, and the set concluded with his “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line, yet another memorable, fresh take on a show-tune standard.

I saw Graff on Broadway in the second cast of Falsettos with Mandy Patinkin, and she was the cast’s stand-out (which is saying something, because I love Mandy).

Her voice has since lost a little of it’s sureness of pitch, which was now and then a bit precarious the other night. Women’s voices tend to break earlier than men’s, and it happens to the best of them, including Cook. What was striking about Graff, though, was that, an occasional early wobble aside, when she needed it to be, her instrument was as sure and as strong as ever. And when she went from a big sound to a quiet moment with no apparent effort, it was breath-taking.

The encore was “People” (remind you of anyone?) and she introduced it talking about how some songs are so strongly associated with someone else that one is intimidated from tackling them, and at other times, one just says, “Fuck it” and does them.

As with so much else during the evening, it was as if she owned it.

Randy Graff performed at the Kennedy Center, October 30, 2015.

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Here’s Randy Graff, March, 2014, singing the City of Angels show stopper “You Can Always Count on Me.”

Christopher Henley About Christopher Henley

Christopher Henley began acting (1979) and directing (1980) around DC with Source Theatre Company. He was a founding Ensemble Member at WSC Avant Bard (formerly Washington Shakespeare Company); was its Artistic Director for more than 16 years; and continues as its Artistic Director Emeritus and as a member of the Acting Company. Other theatres at which he has worked include SCENA Theatre (founding company member), Longacre Lea Productions, Folger Theatre, The American Century Theater, Quotidian Theatre Company, and Ambassador Theatre, in addition to several companies no longer functioning, such as Cherry Red Productions, Spheres Theatre Company, and Moving Target Theatre.

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