Broadway lyricists aren’t often celebrated in concert hall extravaganzas, unless they’re inveterately teamed with a single composer partner. So Carnegie Hall’s two-evening tribute to Alan Jay Lerner and his several musical collaborators comes as a refreshing change. The first evening of the tribute was also refreshing in another way: An eclectic lineup of Broadway, jazz and cabaret specialists treated Lerner songs both beloved and obscure with a deliciously free hand, delivering to the audience an exciting variety of interpretations.
Cabaret star Mary Cleere Haran was the evening’s classy — and informative — hostess, providing witty introductory remarks for both of the show’s nicely paced acts. She opened the second by performing stylish renditions of two fairly obscure tunes from the picture “Royal Wedding,” on which Lerner first collaborated with Burton Lane.
Haran also sensitively delivered the tenderly soaring “Here I’ll Stay,” a lovely song from “Love Life,” Lerner’s sole collaboration with Kurt Weill.
Frederick Loewe was of course Lerner’s most famed and frequent partner, and their greatest show, “My Fair Lady,” made several appearances. Christine Andreas, the star of the show’s 20th anniversary revival, displayed delicious jazz attitude on a medley of “Loverly” and “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Her soprano has a ringing, brilliant vibrato and a sexy, slightly husky quality. Later she returned to perform a more straightforward version of “Take Care of This House,” a somewhat syrupy patriotic number from the ill-fated Lerner-Leonard Bernstein show “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Jazz pianist Fred Hersch wittily deconstructed another pair of tunes from “My Fair Lady” in a piano transcription of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” and “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Hersch’s version featured peppery and always surprising riffs on these familiar melodies, and he played with bright fluidity and style.
The vocal quartet New York Voices provided another inventive twist on a Lerner & Loewe standard from “Brigadoon,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” which they performed in a freeform a cappella version that was a terrific showcase for their finely turned harmonies.
Julius La Rosa turned in a couple of nicely casual, Sinatra-style interpretations of tunes from the Lerner & Loewe movie “Gigi,” the rather moony title song, sung with cool ardor, and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore,” among Lerner’s wittiest lyrics.
Other highlights of the performance were Faith Prince’s wry “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have,” ending in an amusing roar of frustration; Carol Sloane’s “Too Late Now,” a beautiful lyric matched to a meditate Lane melody, and sung with smooth sophistication; and the bright young Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth popping in briefly — in a florid gay ’90s evening gown — to sweetly croon a sweet but minor song from the Lerner & Loewe movie “Gigi,” “The Earth and Other Minor Things.”
Musical director Mike Renzi was unfailingly terrific at the piano, and a bright, brass-heavy jazz ensemble supported the performers admirably.
The already-legendary Elaine Stritch could probably stop a show with a grimace (probably has, actually), and her spot was wisely placed at the close. She didn’t disappoint, blazing through an achingly funny interpretation of “Why Him?,” a cranky tune from the Lerner-Lane flop “Carmelina” in which a love-struck woman coolly details all her beloved’s inadequacies.
Turning the tone around on a dime, Stritch then welcomed Alan King to the stage, and damned if this pair of cutups didn’t provide the evening’s emotional highlight with an expertly timed, ineffably touching performance of “I Remember It Well,” in which the warmth of enduring affection gave a glow to Lerner’s wry lyric about a couple’s diverging memories of a youthful encounter.