A new series of concerts celebrating Broadway tuners of the past kicked off at Town Hall on Monday night with 1943, a year that marked a revolution in the history of musical theater with the arrival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
The creator, writer and host of the series is multimedia critic Scott Siegel, who reminded his audience that 1943 was the year Larry Hart died and Michael Bennett was born. “God giveth and God taketh away,” Siegel noted, beginning a tight, spare and informative narrative that linked songs by Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and Lerner & Loewe.
Among the small pleasures of this type of musicfest is the rediscovery of musical theater literature that has been set aside, ignored or forgotten over the years. Ray Henderson’s “Hold That Smile” from “Ziegfeld Follies” and “The Ladies Who Sing With the Band,” a Fats Waller tune from “Early to Bed,” are two such cases in point, but it was an early Lerner & Loewe miss, “What’s Up,” that produced a couple of delights.
Jason Graae’s performance of “You Wash and I’ll Dry,” followed by Sally Mayes singing “My Last Love,” reminded the listener of Alan Jay Lerner’s sublime poetic gift.
Mayes sprawled across the grand piano to illustrate the playfulness of Cole Porter’s “Something for the Boys” and Lorenz Hart’s last lyric, “To Keep My Love Alive” from “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Heather MacRae re-created the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash “That’s Him,” from “One Touch of Venus,” with elegant simplicity from a lone chair placed downstage; however, she wisely restrained from aping the fabled Mary Martin performance, which was rendered over the chair’s back.
Graae’s tasteless and over-the-top comic romp with “Stan’ Up and Fight” from “Carmen Jones” was a bit jarring and pointedly inappropriate, even provoking some audible audience displeasure. Oscar Hammerstein’s Bizet update deserved something a little more reverent in execution. The singer redeemed himself with the rarely heard “Lonely Room,” Jud Fry’s smokehouse lament from “Oklahoma!”
The concert centerpiece was a generous serving of songs from that show, with Mayes’ delicious “I Can’t Say No” and “All Er Nothin’ ” suggesting she could be a wonderful Ado Annie. MacRae’s poignant rendering of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” proved to be the evening’s show-stopping moment. Skirting the song’s traditional jaunty air and clip-clopping tempo, MacRae framed it as a picturesque romantic buggy ride. It was gorgeous.
MacRae also reflected on the film of “Oklahoma!,” which starred her father, Gordon MacRae, as Curley. She allowed that he was not particularly pleased that he had to be subjected to a perm every morning to justify his character’s name.
Plaudits are in order for Siegel for what promises to be an enriching musical travelogue. The series next celebrates the Broadway musicals of 1957 on April 16, with songs from “West Side Story,” “New Girl in Town,” “Jamaica” and “The Music Man.” Performers will be Alex Korey, Eric Michael Gillett and Adriane Lenox.