|Kelsey Lauritano, Theo Hoffman, Tiffany Townsend, James Edgar Knight, Alexander McKissick, Aaron Mor and Hannah McDermott|
Steven Blier, Founder and Artistic Director of New York Festival of Song, is a major presence at Juilliard and a favorite among the students of the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts. At last night's performance, it was easy to see why. Mr. Blier prepares the program with the students, accompanies with great panache and serves as charming host and raconteur, introducing the songs with interesting tidbits. This is the 10th edition of NYFOS@Juilliard and it was a celebration of collaboration.
In the case of presenting some of America's great songwriting teams, he gave the seven students he worked with a great amount of latitude in choosing two solos each wished to perform. The rest of the evening comprised duets and ensembles. The entertainment value was top-notch. Much credit goes to Mary Birnbaum for the stage direction and Adam Cates for the choreography.
Mr. Blier made two points with which we are in total agreement. He described the mutual support of Juilliard students for one another and the lack of envy. We have witnessed the same phenomenon with pleasure and have often spoken with "outsiders" about it.
The other point he made is that working on "popular" songs is an experience that carries over into the young singers' performance of opera. Yes indeed. They get to "let loose" and exercise their dramatic skills in a supersized delivery. Of course, it is also true that their operatic experience affects their performance in American musical theater. They perform using all their operatic training to project without the use of amplification. That in itself is a treat for us in the audience who can't stand amplification and love the sound of a human voice.
Verbal clarity was quite good for the most part with some singers getting every single word across. Tenor James Edgar Knight made a huge impression with "Captain Hook's Waltz" from Comden and Green's 1954 Peter Pan. The music is tuneful, the lyrics are funny and Mr. Knight used his background in musical comedy to create a wonderful character. He created a totally different character in "Real Live Girl" from Coleman and Leigh's 1962 Little Me. Kelsey Lauritano's silent reaction to his country bumpkin character was a masterpiece of acting.
Ms. Lauritano gave a soulful reading to "It Never Entered My Mind" from Rodgers and Hart's 1940 Higher and Higher. We liked the touch of irony and bitterness. She showed her funny side in "My Father the Gangster" from Bolcom and Weinstein's 1990 Casino Paradise which was not just funny but a moving lament.
Another song from that show, "The Establishment Route" permitted Andrew McKissick to draw some laughs as he donned a wiseguy persona. He showed his versatility by performing "You and the Night and the Music" from Dietz and Schwartz' 1934 Revenge With Music. He hammed it up to great effect when he switched to Spanish.
Theo Hoffman excelled in the same team's "Blue" from their 1996 Cabaret Songs and balanced that serious song with the light-hearted (and unpublished) "Luckiest Man in the World" from George and Ira Gershwin's 1933 Pardon My English. Ms. Lauritano was his gum-chewing bimbo, another acting triumph. Mr. Hoffman also excels in verbal clarity and threw himself totally into his supporting roles in the ensembles.
Tiffany Townsend delighted the audience with some bluesy renditions of "Blue Grass" from Dietz and Schwartz' 1945 Inside U.S.A. and was even better in "I Ain't Here" by Leiber and Stoller.
Hannah McDermott performed the romantic "I Was Doing All Right" from the Gershwin brothers' 1937 The Goldwyn Follies and got to show off her funny side in "Arthur in the Afternoon" from Kander and Ebb's " 1977 The Act. She was a very funny foil to Aaron Mor's delivery of "We Can Talk to Each Other" from Maltby and Shire's 1976 Starting Here, Starting Now.
Mr. Mor waxed rhapsodic about the couple's communication without allowing Ms. McDermott to get a word in. There was a surprise ending. Mr. Mor was hilarious telling the 1922 tale of "The Sheik of Avenue B" by Kalmar and Ruby, which he delivered with a funny Yiddish accent.
Aside from the sensational solos, we enjoyed the staging of "No Other Love" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1953 Me and Juliet in which Mr. Knight was auditioning Ms. Townsend in a charming duet.
Several ensembles rounded out the evening with our hands down favorite being Lerner and Loewe's "Ascot Gavotte" from the 1959 My Fair Lady, in which the singers had a grand time portraying the pretentious British upper classes--sneers and plummy accents included. The men were very funny in "Little Tin Box" from Bock and Harnick's 1959 Fiorello. The women were no less funny in "I Want It All" from Maltby and Shire's 1983 Baby.
The cast was wise to choose songs that are less often heard. The audience was roused to torrents of applause in appreciation for a very entertaining evening.
(c) meche kroop