New York Old Friend

June 17, 2019 | By | Add a Comment

Sometimes it seems that songs about New York City are as plentiful as songs about affairs of the heart and the blessings of the good God above. But if there’s a glut of music about the big burg, it hasn’t dissuaded songwriter Kenneth Laub. He has fashioned not just one new New York anthem, but a whole song cycle celebrating the city. He shared these compositions recently in shows at Birdland Theater. (Other iterations of the show had previously been presented at Birdland and elsewhere.)

Laub was smart to enlist the help of three likable, attractive, and bountifully talented performers: Clint Holmes, Veronica Swift, and Nicolas King. Each of these singers displayed a blend of energy and effervescence that made the Big Apple seem shiny and juicy. I would welcome the chance to see a solo show from any one of them; to have all three together onstage was something special.

Some of Laub’s songs are more specifically New York–centric than others. A few—for example, “Christmas Eve in Central Park”—wear their pro-Gotham sentiments as though they were “I Love NY” T-shirts. Others are a bit more geographically neutral. Laub can write appealing ballads—such as the tender “This Song Is Just for You”—which here was sung warmly by Holmes. But, to my ear, the best songs in the set were the lilting and/or pulsing up-tempo numbers, particularly group ones, including the joyful “Strings,” which showed a bright spirit, along with some appealing harmonies.

The show gradually took on the contours of a revue, if not a book musical, with the faint outline of a narrative emerging. In the samba-ish “Sweet Attraction,” we saw Swift and King as flirtatious but hesitant strangers, who finally meet when he asks her the musical question, “Excuse Me, Are You a Dancer?” We then followed the pair’s relationship through a series of songs, with Holmes chiming in here and there, acting as a sort of romance coach for the pair. We found the couple getting cozy in a horse-drawn carriage in the aforementioned “Christmas Eve in Central Park.” Later we saw them working to fit some quality time with each other into their busy schedules in the amusing “Tuesdays at 3:45.” Throughout these numbers, King and Swift brought acting skills as well as musicianship to the material. You believed they were truly gaga for each other.

The biggest wow moment of the evening was the trio “Fugue for a Rainy Day,” which went for Baroque, with engaging counterpoint lines and lyrics related to the impossibility of hailing a cab in the middle of a downpour. The song began a cappella and later transformed into a scatted fugue, with musical allusions to such other rain songs as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Soon It’s Gonna Rain” popping up along the way.

Immediately after this number came a change of pace with “Mama,” a somber reflection on homelessness (heartfelt, but it could be trimmed a bit). Then, returning to upbeat mode, we were treated to some irreverent fun with Holmes singing the Sinatra-esque “The Lady’s Lookin’ Good,” a salute to the Statue of Liberty that envisioned the New Colossus as one classy broad: “a ‘ten’ from way back when”—with “copper lingerie,” no less. Emma Lazarus would likely blanch at such lyrics, but she’d have to admit they were rollicking.

The one song of the cycle that the composer may want to take another look at is “Stop and Smell the Roses.” The lyrical content seemed a bit shopworn, and the word “smell”—never a particularly pleasant one in any context—was placed prominently (unlike in the identically titled 1974 Mac Davis pop song). Swift sang the lyric gamely, but this number was not the evening’s high point.

A major part of the success of the show can be attributed to pianist and musical director Tedd Firth and his band: saxophonist Nathan Childers, drummer Eric Halvorson, bassist Tom Hubbard, and guitarist Amanda Monaco. These players were especially good on the fiery “Attaché Case,” a tour de force for Swift. The song—somewhat reminiscent of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s “Cornet Man”—further revealed her impressive emotive talents, which complement her well-honed jazz-vocal  technique.

Birdland Theater – June 8, 9

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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