The title of Liam Forde’s offering at Stage 72—”A Fleet Phantasmagoria!”—is a bit much and a little precious, isn’t it? Well, the show, itself, is a lot much and very precious—with both adjectives now used in their most plauditory sense: much signifying the prodigious amount of artistic creativity on display; precious in that the musical numbers go from gem to gem, with only a few flawed stones.
The range of this young man’s talent is out-ray-geous! Not many people on the cabaret scene deserve the epithet Renaissance man, but Forde can legitimately lay claim to it. He sings, dances, plays musical instruments, and writes music and lyrics—and he is responsible for show’s musical direction and arrangements. What’s more, he does all of the above very well, indeed. The imaginative, sparkling direction has been provided by Christopher Murrah, which I was certain was a pseudonym for Liam Forde until I did a bit of research and found that Murrah can boast his own set of accomplishments; besides, their headshots don’t even look alike.
From the first number, Forde’s own “The Coffee Jitters,” which he performs with three singing/dancing cohorts (Tyrone Davis Jr, Julie Thomas and Emily Ferranti at the performance I attended) it’s clear that this is no ordinary cabaret show. Rather, it is a musical revue with a theatrical sensibility and theatrical staging and choreography, and the three supporting artists are far more than backup singers—they give accomplished musical theatre performances. And any doubts you may have that even as a musical theatre revue this is by no means ordinary will be dispelled by the inventive and delightful way the company members are introduced following the opening number.
It’s not just the audience that appears to be having a great time; in the next selection, “What’s New at the Zoo?” (Jule Styne, Comden & Green), the entire company seems to be having a ball—and that spirit prevails throughout the evening, as on “Sermonette” (Quincy Jones, Jon Hendricks), which is an exuberant marriage of rhythm and joy. The ensemble doesn’t participate only in up numbers: on Paul Misraki’s impressionistic art song “L’étang” they provide non-verbal harmonies to Forde’s upper-register vocal; it’s a gentle, lovely moment.
As valuable as the supporting players are, this is Forde’s evening, and he delivers several solo turns. At one point in his all-out performance of “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?” (Richard Whiting, Johnny Mercer) he plays the flute—then he injects a comment about this feat that is at once sassy and adorable. He really is a dickens. By contrast, his rendition of “Wait Until Dark” (Henry Mancini, Jay Livingston & Ray Evans) is simple, pensive, and reflective. Most of the evening’s instrumental accompaniment is provided admirably by Ian Herman on piano, Jerry DeVore on bass, and Zachary Eldridge on drums; however, from time to time Forde does the piano honors, himself, as on Noël Coward’s “Most of Ev’ry Day,” which he imbues with a tender tristesse. To have such an organic appreciation of Coward at such a young age is more than a little remarkable.
Among his original songs is the appealingly quirky “Knowledgeable Neville”—musically reminiscent of both “Rock Island” (the salesmen’s “doesn’t know the territory” number from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man) and “What a Movie!” (from Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti)—perhaps the first time these two sources have been referenced in the same sentence. However, another Forde original, “You Are There,” has lyrics that are somewhat non-lyrical and music that is draggy—at least so it seemed on first hearing.
And there are a few other selections that aren’t quite up to the enterprise’s prevailing exceptional quality. With additional music and lyrics by Forde, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “On a Sunday by the Sea” is cute enough, but lacks punch. “Around the World” (Victor Young, Harold Adamson), also with additional music and lyrics by Forde, is a bit of a hodgepodge, with dreary passages. And Forde’s delivery of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone in Love” is good, but he can dig one level deeper
But these are, indeed, exceptions, and by the time Forde infectiously dances through the audience on his pre-encore closing number (Jimmy Webb’s “Up, Up and Away”) they will have been forgotten.
“A Fleet Phantasmagoria”
Stage 72 – May 14, June 20, August 22, September 5, October 24
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.