The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen
St. Luke’s Theatre – Mondays at 7pm, Wednesdays at 2pm, Thursdays at 8pm
The songs of composer Harold Arlen—with their sophistication and mix of Jewish and African-American melodic elements—need to be approached with intelligence, care, and taste. One of Arlen’s standards (co-written with Ted Koehler) famously touts the “right to sing the blues.” Perhaps the notion that one needs to earn the right to sing Harold Arlen is not a bad one.
The Wonderful Wizard of Song underscores the idea that delivering the composer’s songs effectively is no cinch. A tribute show originally conceived by Sam Arlen (the composer’s son), George Bugatti, and Nigel Wright, the production stars “The Three Crooners” (Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber, and Joe Shepherd), along with a lone female performer, Antoinette Henry. These singers have some talent, and they seem to sincerely admire the work of Arlen, but do they live up to his legacy? At moments, perhaps—but certainly not consistently. The show is mostly a disappointment.
Gene Castle provides the direction and musical staging here, and it is, frankly, embarrassing. The singers spend much of the approximately 70-minute, intermission-free show bouncing and bopping around the stage and engaging in the sort of simple, clichéd choreography that might seem hokey even to loyal devotees of Lawrence Welk’s old television show. The narration—written by Bugatti, delivered by all four of the cast members, and outlining Arlen’s basic biography in semi-chronological fashion—gives little insight into what the composer was about. Mostly it’s just a series of song cues. “Ah, love!” goes the script. “It gets you high. It gets you low.” And without much more ado, the ensemble is off on a medley pairing “Hooray for Love” (lyric by Leo Robin) with “Down With Love” (E.Y. Harburg).
When the men sing together, it’s frequently in unison. And when they harmonize, the result is seldom as rich and full as it should be. Occasionally, it’s wince-provoking. A few of the solo numbers are enjoyable. The warm-voiced Bugatti delivers a solid “The (Gal) that Got Away” (Ira Gershwin). Goldhaber displays some easy charm on “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harburg and Billy Rose) and pays sweet homage to Ray Bolger on “If I Only Had a Brain” (Harburg). Shepherd exudes an appealing mix of angst and nonchalance to suggest a bobbysoxer-weary Sinatra type, but his vocals tend to fall short. Musical director Andrew Smithson seems not to have given the singers much support; his back-up band sounds tinny, though part of that may perhaps be attributed to the theater’s acoustics and/or the amplification system.
Many of the key solos fall to big-voiced Henry, who succeeds when she focuses on the melody and emotional content of a song rather than on piled-on stage business and vocal embellishment. Her “Stormy Weather” (Koehler) is relatively controlled and effective. But on “Blues in the Night” (Johnny Mercer) she gets hung up on delivering the song in a broad dialect. (For instance, she brands the human male as a “worrisome thang that leads you to sang the blues in the night.”) Henry’s best moments come not in the bluesy numbers but at show’s end when she takes the lead on “Over the Rainbow” (Harburg).
In a revue that celebrates Arlen’s life and work, his most famous numbers obviously need to be included. But most of the songs heard here have been performed and recorded by so many accomplished singers over the decades that unflattering comparisons are inevitable. The Wonderful Wizard of Song does feature some lesser-known titles, such as “Learn to Croon” (Jack Yellen) and “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day” (Koehler). I found them among the more successful efforts (though I wasn’t thrilled with the Cotton Club cavorting on the latter number). Perhaps if more such rarities had been included, the evening would have seemed more rewarding.
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.