'The radiant surprise of “Stairway to Paradise,” which runs through Monday at City Center, is how much fresher it feels than contemporary Broadway blockbusters that use more recent pop songbooks.'
By BEN BRANTLEY
Published: May 12, 2007
Encores! has built its own jukebox, and it gleams like gold. “Stairway to Paradise,” which runs through Monday at City Center, is an anthology of truly olden oldies, songs the theatergoing masses heard in musical revues in the first half of the 20th century. And yes, I know, it all sounds too quaint and camp and, well, dusty, for words.
Kendrick Jones in “Stairway to Paradise,” which offers songs from 50 years of musical revues.
But the radiant surprise of “Stairway to Paradise,” which was conceived by Jack Viertel (the artistic director of Encores!) and directed by Jerry Zaks, is how much fresher it feels than contemporary Broadway blockbusters that use more recent pop songbooks.
“Mamma Mia!” (the Abba musical) and “Jersey Boys” (the Four Seasons story) — the two mighty survivors of the jukebox trend — coast on happy associations for audiences who grew up necking, dancing and driving to such music. With Top 40 numbers strung together in skeletal, self-conscious plots, these are shows that wink through sweet-stinging tears, while whispering: “Ah, weren’t we innocent then? Weren’t we sexy?”
Since it seems unlikely that anyone who sees “Stairway to Paradise” was around when a number like “The Maiden With the Dreamy Eyes” was first performed in 1901, much of this show could be nostalgic in only an abstract way.
But pure nostalgia has never been what the Encores! series of concert musicals is about. At their best, these shows capture a strong whiff of the original appeal of vintage works, minus pinching and distorting quotation marks. And Mr. Zaks has steered a top-of-the-line cast — including Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Ruthie Henshall and Capathia Jenkins — into personally stamped performances that dispel any lingering scent of mothballs.
From its besequined and beplumed early years (the age of the Ziegfeld Follies) to its street-smart twilight (the wisecracking New Faces series), the Broadway revue format celebrated by “Stairway to Paradise” was above all a showcase for distinctive talents, even if talent, in some cases, meant nothing more than the ability to look fabulous wearing a four-story headdress.
So “Stairway” pays tribute to the long-stemmed beauties who once slinked across palatial stages like animated floral arrangements, to comic songsters who made their ethnicity a clown’s costume and to velvet-voiced canaries with bared ivory shoulders.
But there’s nothing of the slapdash scrapbook about “Stairway.” It is a very careful assemblage, in roughly chronological order, that creates a portrait of what made America (or its sophisticated city cousins, in any case) laugh, dance, swoon and occasionally cry over a period of 50 years. Without pressing the point, the show charts an eloquent timeline between phases of giddy escapism and socially conscious sobriety in a period that encompassed a depression and two world wars.
This means that the gilded chameleon Ms. Chenoweth becomes both a self-infatuated trilling soprano of Victor Herbert arias and a saltier chorus girl, who, though dressed like a Ziegfeld chorine-cum-show-horse, realizes that she’s tired of pure fluff. (Hence a deliciously out-of-context performance of “Sing Me a Song of Social Significance,” from the 1937 pro-union revue “Pins and Needles.”)
Mr. Chamberlin, in fine form, pulls off a nifty impression of Jimmy Durante imitating Al Jolson, while Ms. Chenoweth impersonates Fanny Brice impersonating an American Indian, as Mr. Fitzgerald does Beatrice Lillie doing a shameless cartoon of a Japanese geisha. (Since ethnic humor doesn’t have the wholesome reputation it once did, quotation marks are inserted here, but gently.)
Torch songs, love duets, Army numbers (for both world wars, by Irving Berlin), ballads and double-entendre scorchers: they’re all on tap here, some familiar (Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan,” Schwartz and Dietz’s “Dancing in the Dark”) and some among the greatest songs you’ve never heard (a scrumptious paean to hell as a vacation paradise, Berlin’s “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” and a suburban housewife’s lament of disenchantment from 1952’s “Guess Who I Saw Today”).
Precision, wit and polish are evident in every note, step and sequin. There’s not a routine — including a couple of sublimely silly sketches — that is merely tossed off. The design team, which includes John Lee Beatty (scenic consultant) and William Ivey Long (costumes), conveys a lush, eye-filling sense of period that never becomes a straitjacket.
The orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, and the impeccably arranged vocal harmonies provide the most savory ear candy in town, while Warren Carlyle’s choreography gracefully tips its top hat to the urbane agility of Fred and Adele Astaire, as well as to the processional undulations of statuesque professional beauties.
Much of the appeal of the old revues was built on the appreciation of sui generis talents: a Brice, a Durante, a Libby Holman, an Ethel Waters. There’s little room for such stylish idiosyncrasies in today’s big Broadway concept musicals, where performers are often asked to be cyborgs in theme park rides or human puppets.
You can thus feel the pleasure rush that the stars of “Stairway” derive from claiming elegant specialty numbers as their own, using muscles that have probably been inactive for a while. So we have Ms. Jenkins slyly peddling (instead of overselling) the wicked sauciness of Eubie Blake’s “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More” and bringing a resonant stillness to “Supper Time,” Irving Berlin’s song about a racial lynching.
Ms. Henshall burns a torch with appropriately cool heat in ballads by Blake and Cole Porter, while Mr. Fitzgerald demonstrates a disarming way with a marinara-sauce-accent in an Italian novelty number. Then there’s Kendrick Jones, the most exquisitely expressive young tap dancer since Savion Glover first wowed New York.
When Mr. Jones weaves his way through a line of men dressed as soldiers, who are singing a swirling chorale by Harold Rome about returning from war, his feet tap an annotation to the lyrics with a grace that seems both casual and exacting.
Mr. Jones is channeling a venerable tradition in popular entertainment. But he’ s translating it into a transcendent personal language. Something old and something new coexist, not only compatibly but also gloriously. That kind of rejuvenation beats plain old nostalgia any day.
STAIRWAY TO PARADISE
50 Years of Revue in Review
Music, lyrics and sketches by Nora Bayes, Irving Berlin, Eubie Blake, Henry Blossom, Elisse Boyd, Bob Cole, Betty Comden, B. G. DeSylva, Howard Dietz, Jimmy Durante, Leo Edwards, Dorothy Fields, George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Jay Gorney, Murray Grand, Adolph Green, E. Y. Harburg, Lorenz Hart, Victor Herbert, J. W. Johnson, Jerome Kern, Jean Kerr, Walter Kerr, Duke Leonard, Jimmy McHugh, Blanche Merrill, Ed G. Nelson, Jack Norworth, Harry Pease, Andy Razaf, Richard Rodgers, Harold Rome, Arthur Schwartz, Paul Gerard Smith, Jule Styne and P. G. Wodehouse; directed by Jerry Zaks; guest music director, vocal and dance arranger, Rob Berman; conceived by Jack Viertel; set consultation by John Lee Beatty; sound by Tom Morse; costume consultation by William Ivey Long; lighting by Paul Gallo; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; company manager, Michael Zande; production stage manager, Rolt Smith; choreography by Warren Carlyle. Presented by New York City Center EncoresifiArlene Shuler, president and chief executive; Mark Litvin, senior vice president and managing director; Mr. Viertel, artistic director; Paul Gemignani, music director. At City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan; (212) 581-1212. Through Monday. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Jenn Gambatese, Michael Gruber, Shonn Wiley, J. Mark McVey, Holly Cruikshank, Kendrick Jones, Capathia Jenkins and Ruthie Henshall.