Friday, January 28, 2011

Neither snow nor sleet hampered Kelli O'Hara and Victor Garber's splendid turns in Knickerbocker Holiday

Kelli O’Hara and Victor Garber were among the soloists joining the Collegiate Chorale Wednesday night to take Broadway by storm in their rousing concert presentation of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson‘s Knickerbocker Holiday. I mean this on two levels -- forceful performances inside that dazzled the audience in Alice Tully Hall and a blizzard outside roaring through the boulevard with fierce winds and swirling snow, mounting quickly to what would be nearly 20 inches, making the Great White Way live up to its name.

I had never heard of this musical comedy, Weill (music) and Anderson’s (book and lyrics) first collaboration, which premiered in 1938. I responded to the press invitation solely on the basis of O’Hara (in photo with Garber) being in the cast, not even bothering to read what it was about. I’ve seen all of her Broadway appearances. She always stood out, even before she was the major star she is now.

The work is a combination of operetta and romantic comedy, with doses of political satire thrown in. It reminded me a bit of Finian’s Rainbow, although lacking the magic of that show, or at least as it was presented in concert form. What I saw was so charming I’d like to attend a full production to see how it holds up.

Opening with a 26-year-old Washington Irving (Bryce Pinkham) in 1809 lamenting his lack of success as a writer, Knickerbocker Holiday, set in 1647 in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, was inspired by Irving’s book A History of New York and is a spoof of Dutch-era New York history. The real life Irving published his book in 1809 under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker. It was so successful that Knickerbocker became synonymous for New Yorker. In the musical, with its corrupt politicians and a star-crossed love story, Irving appears from time to time to comment on the action or to ask his characters to keep their role in history in mind and behave better.

Director Ted Sperling, the engaging story and all of those powerful singers made the evening (the second of only two performances) well worth journeying out for (not to mention struggling to get back home from). Joining Garber as Peter Stuyvesant, the newly arrived governor, were the gorgeous (in voice and flesh) Ben Davis as Brom, who with O’Hara as Tina make up the young lovers of the story, David Garrison and Christopher Fitzgerald. Every performance was excellent, as were the magnificent 65-member strong Chorale and American Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Bagwell.

The songs range from funny to romantic, with the most well known (and the one that made Weill and Anderson a great deal of money) being “September Song,” sung most movingly by Garber. The jokes are as appropriate today as they were when Anderson, a strong opponent of FDR’s New Deal who considered Social Security “a step toward the abrogation of the individual”, penned them. Stuyvesant’s comment that “the government can do no wrong” drew a huge laugh. I guess every era has elected officials who feel they are above the law. Another audience pleaser was Brom’s explanation to Stuyvesant’s question about what is a democracy: “It’s where you’re governed by amateurs.”

In a “” interview director Sperling explained the show’s importance in the canon of American musical theatre.

"It's quite early in the history of the book musical,” he said. “It predates Oklahoma!, which is everybody's benchmark for the integrated musical. It is really well thought through, with songs that advance the plot or illuminate moments. I think it's a pretty forward-thinking piece for its time."

While the musical’s book was trimmed for the concert, the full score was performed and recorded live by Sh-k-boom/Ghostlight Records. I will look forward to that one.

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