“I hear you’re a son of a bitch,” said Jerome Kern, introducing himself to a producer. “So am I.” But he was one productive son of a bitch, composing more than 700 songs in collaboration with an all-star rotation of lyricists, among them Oscar Hammerstein II, P.G. Wodehouse, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, and Johnny Mercer.
In Series celebrates the father of the American musical in All the Things You Are: Jerome Kern, the company’s new revue at the Atlas Center. Directed by Brian J. Shaw, with musical director Reenie Codelka on piano, the evening features a talented, charismatic sextet of performers delivering bounteous music in a handsome production. But it amounts to less than the sum of its parts, falling flat dramatically.
The show features no less than 40 songs, for the most part grouped thematically. For instance, there’s a section of hey-you’re-swell infatuation tunes: “Lovely to Look At,” “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me?,” “Let’s Begin,” “You Couldn’t Be Cuter,” and “You’re Devastating.” There’s a couplet of dance numbers: “I’d Love to Dance Through Life With You” and “I Won’t Dance.” And another couplet of songs about singing: “Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing” and “I Want to Sing in Opera.” Selections from Kern’s masterpiece, Showboat, are concentrated toward the end.
But the enterprise has insufficient shape. It’s a revue, true, not a musical. But it’s also an hour and 45 minutes of theater, not a random voice recital, and it feels, in overall conception, not particularly well thought through. Piecing together Kern’s lesser and better known works into a posthumously concocted evening–the equivalent of what producers assembled from George Gershwin’s work in My One and Only, Crazy for You, Nice Work if You Can Get It, or the 2015 An American in Paris–would be an undertaking of a mammoth scale, but a damn interesting one. Far short of that, a little more stitched-together characterization and some clearer emotional if not narrative arc could have helped this effort along.
There are hints of context. Jonathan Dahm Robertson has designed a handsome 1930s-looking set that suggests a grand-hotel lobby, before intermission, and a ballroom after. Marianne Meadows’s lighting is mood-setting and contains the singers in tender, muted tones during their ballads. And Donna Breslin’s costumes are bellboy-sharp, black-tie snazzy, and ballgown vavoom. But romantic sizzle and sentimental heart tugs are fleeting, and we’re left with a touch of whiplash as the crew zips into the next selection before the last has quite seeped in.
Jarrod Lee’s stirring rendition of “Ol’ Man River” was undercut by his formal attire–he puts on his swell’s jacket, then sings, “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin’.” For a song loaded with a freighter’s worth of American and Broadway history, that dramaturgical choice, even in a cabaret-style evening, is an unfortunate misstep. Garrett Matthews’ and Suzanne Lane’s tap skills in “I Won’t Dance” were a cute revelation, but their tap rhythm and technique were so far below their vocal prowess that it brought the professionalism of the segment down a few notches. It would have been better to keep them restlessly, flirtatiously not dancing, or to incorporate just a few gestural soft-shoe moves.
All the Things You Are: Jerome Kern
closes February 4, 2018
Details and tickets
Still, the six stars generally fare well in these solo, duo, and ensemble tunes. Along with Lee, Cornelius David has a light, comedic sensibility in duets like “A Fine Romance,” but his lyrical side, including a delicate falsetto, shone through in “You’re Devastating.” Suzanne Lane has an expressive silent-film ingenue visage, and puts well-crafted ambivalent spin on love tunes like “Remind Me.” After the show’s somewhat bloodless first five songs, Krislynn T. Perry shifted the night into gear with her “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.” Elizabeth Mondragon played off of her operatic training in the diva sendup “I Want to Sing in Opera,” clearly enjoying its inspired silliness, such as the line, ”Senior Caruso told me I could do so.” Matthews amusingly explored his own diva nature in “Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing.”
Perry and Lane both had occasional intonation problems, and the lovely but treacherous Kirby Shaw ensemble arrangement of “All the Things You Are” could use some firming up. Codelka’s pacing and rapport with her singers are excellent, but her overture medley and a few of the other accompaniments felt a little sketchy and under-prepared.
But again, the biggest problem of the evening, despite its benign Great American Songbook intentions, is in its general conception. Part of Kern’s genius lay in advancing plot and character through his songs, and, despite hits like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” he was wisely wary of having them plucked from their plots. To assemble his numbers into a successful and coherent posthumous show will require a jigsaw-puzzle enthusiast’s imagination. In the meantime, though, In Series at least reminds us that there is a wealth of possibilities.
All the Things You Are: Jerome Kern. Directed by Brian J. Shaw, with music direction by Reenie Codelka. Starring Suzanne Lane, Elizabeth Mondragon, Krislynn T. Perry, Cornelius David, Jarrod Lee, and Garret Matthews. Sets by Jonathan Dahm Robertson. Lighting by Marianne Meadows. Costumes by Donna Breslin. Stage Manager: Keta Newborn. Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.