May 12, 2007

"Stairway to Paradise" Approaches Nirvana

Let me say right off the bat that my husband K is a member of the Encores orchestra. But even people whose household incomes are not affected by the Encores production of Stairway to Paradise are going to rave about this show. Of course, it's almost a tradition for musicals fans to rave about the Encores shows. For the past 13 years, the productions, which run for just five or six performances, attract the best talents in the business to put on concert versions of old Broadway musicals. But it's the music that's the true star of these shows and hearing a full 30-piece orchestra play those scores with the lush full sound they were intended to produce is always heavenly.

But this time, the Encores team, lead by artistic director Jack Viertel, has done something different—for the first time in its history, Encores has mounted an original work. Kind of. Stairway to Paradise is both an homage to the grand revues made most famous by the Ziegfeld Follies and a history of musical stage entertainment from the turn of the 20th century up to the 1950s when these kind of variety shows migrated to television on programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Kraft Music Hall” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” which ran until 1978. Stairway to Paradise consists of 30 numbers—torch songs and comic patter tunes, sweet boy meets girl duets and brassy chorus numbers—written by Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, among others. The original revues were filled with one-of-a-kind talents whose names still bring nods of recognition: Fanny Brice, Bert Williams, Helen Morgan, and Will Rogers. You may not instantly recognize all their names but Stairway to Paradise's top-knotch cast includes such legends-in-the-making as Kevin Chamberlin, Christopher Fitzgerald, Capathia Jenkins, Ruthie Henshall, a young tap dance wiz named Kendrick Jones, plus the always endearing and ambundantly talented Kristin Chenoweth. She is the heart and soul of the show. K says she’s also a really nice person.

The great treat of being married to someone in the Encores family is that you get to go to the invited dress rehearsal on the Wednesday night before the show opens. In the old days, before Encores tickets became harder to get than a table at a Thomas Keller restaurant, seating at the dress was open—first come, first serve and the amiable Judith Daykin, the executive director of City Center where the shows play, would stand in front of the curtain and read the Playbill listing of musical numbers to the audience since programs weren't given out at the rehearsal performance. Daykin retired four years ago, seats have long been assigned and you now get a little printed list of the numbers being performed but the rehearsal is still great fun and the anticipation literally crackles in the room when the tuxedoed orchestra, always seated on stage, strikes up the overture. I invited my friend Alan, a singer and a theatrical history buff, because I figured he'd know and appreciate the show. He did and he could barely restrain himself from singing along. But you don't need to know the songs or anything about Broadway's past to have a good time. The eight-year-old sitting next to us bounced along to the music and literally doubled over with laughter at jokes that were first told when her grandma’s grandma was a girl. I thought the show was the best I'd seen at Encores since I saw Chicago there in 1996.

As always happens when an Encores show is this terrific, speculation immediately begins about whether it will transfer to Broadway as Chicago and Wonderful Town eventually did. There are signs that it might. The music was completely reorchestrated by Broadway’s preeminent orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Others on the top-shelf creative team include director Jerry Zaks, set designer John Lee Beatty and costume consultant William Ivey Long, who produced more—and more lavish—costumes than I can remember in any previous Encores show. In other words, someone thinks it’s worth investing a lot of money in this show. But over the next couple of weeks, the television networks will announce their new fall seasons and one of the pilots picking up positive buzz is called “Pushing Daisies”; one of its co-stars is Kristin Chenoweth. So, history may repeat itself and the revue may again see its talent migrate to TV.


Anonymous said...

Following the (mostly) raves the show got from the dailies and Internet critics, it's great to read such an enthusiastic post by someone with a personal connection to the show. It made me jealous all over again that I didn't try to see it and hopeful, though probably in vain, that the show WILL
transfer. But as I, too, have read that Chenoweth's TV pilot is getting great buzz, I don't have high hopes that she'll be available. And I wonder if there'd be a transfer without her. What's more, I also wonder about the untangling of the royalty situation. The money involved in satisfying the estates of all those lyricists, composers and sketch writers: Good Lord!

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Oh how I wish I could go. Thanks for sharing your review!