Harold Arlen (1905-86) is one of the 20th century’s top tunesmiths, creating more than 500 published songs in collaboration with a host of legendary lyricists. Nearly three dozen of his better-known tunes are showcased to mixed effect in this awkwardly staged review, backed by a superlative 12-piece instrumental ensemble led by music director-pianist Steve Rawlins. Narrator Sam Arlen contributes amusing and informative anecdotes about his father’s life and career, but undermines the musical quality of the concert with his high school-level tenor sax tooting.
Composer Arlen, who scored more than 20 musical stage works and 30 films, is best honored by the transcendent offerings of jazz diva Barbara Morrison, who sumptuously elevates the melancholy “Last Night When We Were Young” and Ethel Waters’ signature, “Stormy Weather,” into a ballad singer’s master class.
Morrison just as adroitly displays her raunchy side in a hard-driving “Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day,” joining thrushes Mary Shriver-Bugatti and Tiba in a tribute to Arlen’s contributions to Harlem’s 1930s Cotton Club revues. In solo turns, Tiba offers a hard-driving but sultry “Like a Straw in the Wind,” while Shriver-Bugatti warbles a more placid “As Long as I Live.”
Most of the evening’s vocal chores are handled by George Bugatti-led group the Three Crooners, also featuring Alistair Tober and Johnny K. Their semi-choreographed onstage shenanigans are more reminiscent of a Vegas lounge act, but they project respectful, often inspired renditions of a wide range of Arlen fare.
Bugatti’s haughty charm and oozing vocal chops are amply displayed in finger-snapping outings on “Old Black Magic” (featuring a driving trumpet solo by Latin jazz great Bobby Rodriguez) and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” He makes a sincere effort with the melodically tricky “Out of This World,” but is sabotaged by faulty sound reinforcement and the less-than-stellar instrumental contribution of Sam Arlen.
The youthful Tober and K are still honing their crooner personas, but they offer a zesty medley of Arlen’s lyrically contrasting “Down With Love” and “Hurray for Love.” In respectable solo turns, Tober (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”) and K (“This Time the Dream’s on Me”) display musical empathy that belies their youth.
The highlight of the Three Crooners’ perf is a “saloon medley” (“The Girl That Got Away,” “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” “One for My Baby,” “Blues in the Night”) that amply displays Arlen’s credentials as a supreme torchmeister.
As a tribute to Arlen’s most lauded film score (“The Wizard of Oz”), the complete ensemble concludes this lengthy evening of song by leading an audience sing-along of “Over the Rainbow” (lyrics by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg), which the American Film Institute has recognized as the No. 1 song of the 20th century.
The Wonderful Wizard of Song: A Musical Journey Celebrating Harold Arlen