11 O’Clock Numbers at 11 O’Clock

May 17, 2011

Feinstein’s at Loews Regency  –  Thursdays at 11 pm

There’s a hazard with putting together a show consisting of “11 o’clock numbers”—those songs placed late in the second act of a musical in order to pump up the audience before the final curtain. So many of these songs have an accelerating emotional trajectory that results finally in high-volume blasts of pain or joy. Think of Jerry Herman’s “The Best of Times” from La Cage aux Folles: almost whispery start, robust middle, noisy finish. Doing a whole program of songs like that, back to back, could quickly lead to monotony, and very loud monotony, too.

There are several such “build to the big finish” songs in producer Scott Siegel’s “11 O’Clock Numbers at 11 O’Clock!”—a charming hour-long program featuring a trio of attractive performers: Carole J. Bufford, Christina Bianco, and Scott Coulter. Among the knock-’em-dead selections: “As Long As He Needs Me” from Oliver!, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” from Grease, and “The Winner Takes It All” from Mamma Mia! Refreshingly, though, Siegel, director Coulter (doing double duty), and musical director/pianist John Fischer look beyond the super-showstopper genre to include a wider range of “11 o’clock” approaches.

For instance, there’s Coulter’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” from Right This Way (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal)—highly emotional, but in a subdued, dreamy way. Or Coulter and Bufford on Irving Berlin’s famous point/counterpoint duet “You’re Just In Love,” from Call Me Madam. Since one of the original duet partners was Ethel Merman, the song certainly calls for some volume. But it’s really a jaunty lark, not a brass-band shout-fest.

Bufford is the throbbing belter in the bunch, so she handles many of the songs that have big emotional punches. Her quiet notes are unassuming, but her strong, full-throated moments are exceptional. You know they’re coming, so you sit tight as you wait for the thrill ride to begin. Bufford is a big singer in most every way. She has a wallop of a voice, a wide-stretching mouth, sweeping arm gestures. Her emotionality takes on operatic proportions, too, pushing her right to the edge of camp sometimes, as in “What Did I Have I Don’t Have” (Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane) from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. On the lines “Where can I go to repair/All the wear and the tear” she stretches out one hand with trembling fingers—like a jittery hophead from some 1950s Hollywood potboiler. She’s a trip—a good one.

No slouch in the belting department is Bianco, who builds the excitement in “Gimme Gimme” (Jeanine Tesori/Dick Scanlan), from the stage version of Thoroughly Modern Millie. Bianco sounds on the song a lot like Sutton Foster from the original cast, and it’s no secret that she is a skilled impressionist (she appeared in the long-running spoof Forbidden Broadway). Bianco gives a fine sample of this gift for mimicry with her rendition of the title song from Cabaret (John Kander/Fred Ebb), in which she impersonates a whole roster of stage divas. (Her satirical darts prove especially deadly when aimed at Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone.)

Finally there’s Coulter, who serves as the main emcee of the evening. He has the demeanor of a choirboy who’s graduated from boy-soprano to tenor. He tries to be a droll scamp—as when he chides the gals for their skimpy outfits. But the guy can’t help it: he comes off as innately cherubic. In the show’s opener, the title tune from Promises, Promises (Burt Bacharach/Hal David), Coulter seems overeager. He crouches at moments as if he were about to jump into the audience’s collective lap. But he later mellows a tad—proving his ballad credentials with the melancholy, honey-sweet “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Individually, the three performers provide pleasing variety and contrast. But when they all sing together—as they do on several numbers—a truly special effect occurs. There’s something aurally fascinating about two strong female voices blending in close harmony with a falsetto-ish tenor. If such a trio is not an altogether original configuration, it’s certainly not something you hear every day. The masculine timbre of Coulter’s voice, albeit pitched high, subtly colors the otherwise feminine sound palette.

There are two numbers where this effect proves especially engaging. The first is the irresistible “Sing for Your Supper” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) from The Boys from Syracuse, a song that has always suggested to me a choir of swing-time birdies from some early animated Disney feature. Here it’s like a stroll through a lively co-ed aviary. The second number is the trio’s elegiac microphone-free encore, “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line (Marvin Hamlisch/Edward Kleban), sung as a way to “kiss the day goodbye”— and timed to end the enjoyable program precisely at 11:59 pm.



About the Author

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.