Revue of Jerry Herman's songs pure delight

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  March 19, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, March 19 (UPI) -- A revue built around 40 of Jerry Herman's Broadway show tunes emphasizing his talent as a lyricist is one of the season's most rewarding Off-Broadway offerings, affirming Herman's place in the popular music pantheon of great American composer-lyricists.

Based on an idea suggested in a letter to Herman 10 years ago from a fan he'd never met, California architect-set designer Paul Gilger, the show ran for two years in San Francisco with the title "Tune the Grand Up." It has been renamed "Showtune" for its limited run at Theater at St. Peter's in midtown Manhattan through May 11.

The concept of the show, for which Gilger is given credit, with one piano and six singers serves Herman's wonderfully varied songbook well, arranging numbers with related ideas into groupings of songs on topics such as the battle of he sexes, gender roles, Hollywood movies, and living the good life. It provides two hours of pure delight for all but the tone deaf.

"It's the first time in my career that every lyric of mine comes racing across the stage at the audience and you hear every word," the 70-year-old composer of "Mame," "Hello, Dolly!," and "La Cage Aux Folles," said in an interview.

"Suddenly my lyrics become more important than the music. That really tickles me because I am so often called 'composer Jerry Herman' and they forget about the lyrics and that they were written by the same person."

The cast is made up of three women -- Sandy Binion, Russell Arden Koplin, and Karen Murphy -- and three men -- Paul Harman, Tom Korbee, and Martin Vidnovic. They range from young to a little older.

Bobby Peaco, the nimble pianist who is an orchestra all by himself, also sings. Joey McNeely, best known as a choreographer, has directed the show so that it occasionally breaks into dance for such numbers as "Tap Your Troubles Away" and "Counterpoint March."

Costumes have been designed by Tracy Christensen in black and white and scenic designer Klara Zieglerfova has stretched a film strip across the back of the stage, a reference to early films in keeping with Herman's "Mack & Mabel." This musical about Hollywood pioneer producer-director Mack Sennett and silent film star Mabel Normand is admittedly closest to the composer's heart of all his shows, although it was not a commercial success on Broadway.

Christensen has provided a few props to indicate era, style and mood, including pastel bowler hats, top hats, straw boaters, and garden party bonnets, frilly umbrellas, a kimono, a parade baton (for "Before the Parade Passes By"), a feather boa, and a long cigarette holder.

"Showtune" includes such stirring showstoppers as "Hello, Dolly!," saved until the very last as the show's finale, "Bosom Buddies," the vitriolic female duet from "Mame," and such lesser known numbers as "One Person" from "Dear World," Herman's musical adaptation of "The Madwoman of Chaillot," and "Movies Were Movies" from "Mack & Mabel."

The show creates moments of comedy, as when "It Only Takes a Moment" is followed by Mame's pregnant secretary, Agnes Gooch, singing "What Do I Do Now?," and it builds up to moments of exhilaration in the pairing of "The Best of Times" and "It's Today." Herman's proclivity for the bittersweet is well documented with renditions of "Time Heals Everything" and "If He Walked Into My Life."

It also gives a new meaning to Herman's gay anthem, "I Am What I Am" from "La Cage" by having it sung by both men and women rather than retaining its original concept as a male solo.

Although all the performances are excellent, Paul Harman is outstanding in his charmingly acted depiction of a drag queen putting on show makeup for the "A Little More Mascara" number from "La Cage" and Russell Arden Koplin is delightful in her interpretations of "So Long, Dearie" from "Hello, Dolly!" and "Nelson," a hilarious take on Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald from "Mack & Mabel."

Herman is currently involved in getting "Mack & Mabel," a Broadway flop in 1974 and a London hit in 1995, revived in the United States with a new book. A concert performance of the show's songs will be performed at Lincoln Center as a benefit for the Gay Men's Health Crisis on March 31.

But an even greater priority for Herman is the premiere of his newest show, "Miss Spectacular," in Las Vegas next year with a directorial assist from his old friend, showman Tommy Tune. Meanwhile, "Mame," "La Cage," and "Hello, Dolly!" are scheduled to return to Broadway in 2004, 2005, and 2006 respectively under the aegis of Nederlander Productions.

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