We don't see a lot of revues any more. There was a time, some 80 to 90 years ago, when musical revues were a staple of the Broadway theater scene. Of course, this was when "book musicals" were on the ascendant, and they eventually supplanted both revues and operettas, essentially by morphing them together into a new hybrid: musical comedy, and eventually the musical play.
The days of topical revues, shows with content created specifically for that production, are pretty much gone. Every once in a while we get a show like NEWSical or When Pigs Fly. The type of revue we're most likely to encounter these days is the songbook show, featuring the catalog of a particular composer (Sondheim on Sondheim), writing team (Closer Than Ever and Maltby and Shire), or performer (Ain't Misbehavin' and "Fats" Waller).
And songbook shows are hard to pull off. At their best, they capture the feel of certain time period, as does Closer Than Ever with the late '80s/early '90s, quite handily in fact. Or they convincingly celebrate a particular larger-than-life personality; Ain't Misbehavin' is surely the best of these. At their worst, songbook revues are rote, chronological slogs with plastic performers and leaden material. It takes a lot more than just a piano and a bunch of stools, to paraphrase a number from Upstairs at O'Neal's, a patchy but intermittently inspired revue from the early 1980s.
I recently had the chance to see The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman just before it closed last weekend at the 59E59 Theaters. I had a few minor issues with the presentation, but overall I found the show to be 85 minutes of virtually non-stop delight and charm. (However, I do find that title to be a rather odd choice for a show that celebrates the work of a man who died in 2004.)
The Best Is Yet to Come was "devised and directed" by David Zippel, who wrote the lyrics to Coleman's City of Angels, and thankfully Zippel has eschewed the use of interstitial patter. You know: "Cy Coleman was born Seymour Kaufman in 1929..." Yeesh. Instead, we get a straightforward celebration of Coleman's music. Show queens might quibble with the song selection: not enough of this show, too much of that. But what really matters in a show like this is the thematic flow of the material and the overall pacing, both of which were strong. The crisp staging by Lorin Latarro was minimal but very effective, which was typical of the admirable restraint of the production as a whole.
Oh, except for the show's hyperbolic promotional materials, which promise a "dazzling musical extravaganza" and say of Cy Coleman that it is "arguable whether any one person has given more pleasure to more millions." Um...really? Yeah, that's "arguable," all right, and I would argue in the negative, not out of any lack of respect for Coleman, but rather because I loathe marketing blather. "Given more pleasure to more millions"? Did an intern write that? Because it's just plain awful, both syntactically and semantically.
Gushy gooey marketing-speak notwithstanding, I've always loved Cy Coleman's work. I take unqualified delight in Barnum, On The Twentieth Century, and City of Angels. I find much to enjoy in The Life, I Love My Wife, Little Me, Wildcat, Seesaw, and The Will Rogers Follies, although all are significantly flawed. And I remain an ardent fan of what is probably his best known work, Sweet Charity, although the show itself seems to have fallen from favor, at least since its lackluster 2005 revival with Christina Applegate. The Best Is Yet to Come featured numbers from most of these shows, plus some of Coleman's non-theatrical hits, such as "Witchcraft" and the show's title song.
Beyond the material and the presentation, the show's chief assets were three remarkable female performers, all of whom are not only strong singers but also delightfully nuanced song stylists. It was great to see Sally Mayes on stage again. I probably haven't seen her since the 1994 revival of She Loves Me, and she remains in remarkably fine voice, a voice that has so much character to it. Rachel York is always a pleasure onstage, and for the most part here she was a wonderfully dynamic presence. Her vocal tics got a bit repetitive, particularly the one in which she starts a vowel sound with her lips covering her teeth, then slowly draws her lips from crown to gum, to shape the diphthong. (Everything in moderation, Ms. York)
For me, the highlight of the show was the glorious Lillias White, who brought sass and sparkle to every number she was in. She performed the song that won her the Tony Award, "The Oldest Profession" from The Life, in its entirety, much to my delight, as well as that of the rest of the audience. Her most recent role, that of the noble mother in Fela, didn't begin to tap into what this marvelous woman can do onstage, and it was a joy to see her display here so much more of what makes her a consummate performer.
I ask you: How could the men of the cast compete? Well, the guys certainly held their own, but with varying degrees of success. David Burnham provided an infusion of young blood amid the seasoned pros, but he was a bit outclassed. Howard McGillin has always had such a superb voice, and thankfully it remains in fine form. McGillin was far less stiff here than I remember him being in the past, moving with far greater fluidity and charm. (Full disclosure: At one point in the show, McGillin was handing out roses to the ladies of the cast, and at the last second, he turned to the audience and threw the last rose to me. Might this have tempered my view of Mr. McGillin's performance? Well, fiddle-dee-dee...)
A significant revelation for me was Billy Stritch, who acted as musical director, onstage pianist, and vocal performer for the show. I had never seen Stritch live, and it was a real treat. His style is so remarkably smooth, richly embodying the subtle performance stylings that seem to have fallen from favor, although not with me, I can tell you that. I could listen to Billy sing all night, without amplification, histrionics, or power flourishes. The breath control. The effortlessness. Forget the belters, kids. Here's the kind of subtle and sustainable singing that's worth emulating.
The Best Is Yet to Come wrapped up a seven-week run at 59E59 this past weekend. No word yet on whether there will be a cast recording, but I'm really hoping there is one. It's not often you get a chance to hear this many great songs performed by a cast of this caliber.