Peter and Will Anderson

August 10, 2017 | By | Add a Comment

The Anderson Twins want us all to understand that Harold Arlen, this week’s honoree in the brothers’ ambitious month-long Songbook Summit series, is every bit the equal of the other three subjects of their tribute (Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers). It’s just that Arlen was somewhat of a loner, never had a real Broadway success, and refused to “work the room” in Hollywood, where he did have huge success and won an Oscar for “Over the Rainbow” (lyric by E.Y. Harburg). Thus, Arlen wasn’t as well known or celebrated, even in his heyday, as he should have been and as his three contemporary composers were. Moreover, he, himself, is less well remembered and regarded today, even by many American songbook mavens, and even though so many of his songs endure and are much beloved. Now, in this splendid 90-minute show at 59E59, the Andersons, as its “creators and producers” (and, presumably, arrangers) pull out all the stops to rectify our unfamiliarity with the man, himself, and to revel once again in his music, this time with a decidedly jazzy and woodwind-centric approach.

The Anderson brothers have long since proven themselves to be jazz virtuosos on a variety of wind instruments (both men on clarinet, Peter on soprano and tenor saxophones, and Will on alto sax and flute). Like Rodgers and George Gershwin, but unlike Porter, Arlen was strictly a composer of melodies. He always worked with a lyricist, most often with Harburg, Ted Koehler, or Johnny Mercer. Thus, it stands to reason that this is predominantly an instrumental show. It begins without vocals on “As Long as I Live” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” From the outset it’s clear that the twins have topnotch instrumental support from bassist Clovis Nicolas, drummer Phil Stewart, and, especially, pianist Jeb Patton, who shimmers on “Come Rain or Come Shine” and its follow-up number, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues”. Patton is justly rewarded later in the program with a full solo of the classically trained Arlen’s “Suite in B,” for which everyone else clears the stage.

Vocalist Molly Ryan first appears onstage to sing “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (Koehler) and she does indeed. A smooth jazz singer, Ryan here echoes the girl singers of 1930s and ’40s Big Bands, leaving the stage when she’s not needed, and standing back to allow longish instrumental intervals on the numbers she does perform. She is especially effective singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harburg, Billy Rose), “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (Mercer), “Over the Rainbow,” and the show’s closer “I’ve Got the World on a String” (Koehler). Not all of Harold Arlen’s Greatest Hits are included in this set of a dozen songs, but “Stormy Weather” (Koehler), “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (Mercer), and “That Old Black Magic” (Mercer) are, providing the Andersons some of their tastiest clarinet-sax-and-flute collaborations. Film clips of many of Arlen’s interpreters—such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Nat King Cole—performing snippets of both the songs in this show and the ones that got away, e.g., “The Man That Got Away” (Ira Gershwin), are projected on a screen above the stage, as are still photos of Arlen and his era. Further completing the story of Harold Arlen is Will Anderson’s thoughtful narration, offering not only telling biographical details, but also interpretations of Arlen’s work, with and without his top trio of lyricists. I can only suspect that Porter got a similar full and admiring treatment last week, and that Gershwin and Rodgers will get theirs in the two weeks to come.

Songbook Summit (Harold Arlen)
59E59  –  August 8-13

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 17 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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