After nearly 14 years of revivals, City Center's Encores! has offered its first original production - Stairway to Paradise, a near-chronological compilation of songs (and a couple of skits) from roughly a half century (1901 to 1952) of Broadway revues. And now that it is time to review the revue, the words that come to mind are wonderful, glorious, marvelous and delightfully funny.
But it's much more than that.
In a Playbill article about Stairway to Paradise, Jack Viertel, Encores! artistic director, says that revues were "the most disposable form of Broadway musical" - "plotless, sketch-driven shows, satirical, political or just plain silly, with great songs that don't exactly add up to a dramatic score ... the equivalent in their day of Saturday Night Live.
Well, yes and no. Viertel was more accurate when he and the musical-theater historian Bob Kimball, in a post-performance dialogue and discussion with the audience after the Saturday matinee performance, said that what revues (which lasted into the 1950s but whose heyday was the 1920s) were really about was talent - and beauty.
Well, there was beauty aplenty onstage at City Center, in the stars, the songs, the costumes and what were once called the chorus girls. And there was talent aplenty too - talent past and present, the genius behind what was once the greatness of musical theater, and some of the talent that preserves whatever is left of that magnificent and uniquely American artistic heritage.
Yes, revues were disposable - as Viertel noted, hundreds and hundreds of the songs and skits just wouldn't work today, for many reasons. But, as he also mentioned, hundreds more of the songs from that era are of such high quality that they could have found their way into Stairway to Paradise, but didn't make the cut. Because, in truth, revues are disposable only in the sense that we live in a society with a five-minute memory, where history rarely matters, where what counts above all is the latest fad, where there is little sense of the value of the past, and of preserving its finest contributions.
The talent of the past represented at City Center included works by Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Victor Herbert, Rodgers and Hart, Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz, Eubie Blake, Andy Razaf, Jimmy McHugh, Jimmy Durante, Dorothy Fields, Harold Rome, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green - songs known, well known and unknown.
The talent of the present included:
A radiant Kristin Chenoweth, golden-voiced and torchy in Schwartz and Dietz's "Dancing in the Dark," in tandem with the glamorously long gams and elegant dance steps of Holly Cruikshank.
Chenoweth's comic timing, expressive gestures and expert ability to elicit both giggles and side-splitting laughter in a riotously silly jewel-caper skit from 1924, evocatively titled "The Yellow Peril," in which baskets full of allergy-inducing goldenrod accidentally replace more stately radiant red roses, occasioning much ah-choo about everything.
Or Chenoweth as the aptly named, achingly vain and numbingly dumb "Miss Hilton" - sort of, ah, "Paris" in the spring - an actress more troublesome to her movie director than her surprising co-star, an actorly gorilla who, unlike Hilton, precisely