The musical treasure trove “Stairway to Paradise” could hardly ask for a more appropriate opening number than “The Land Where the Good Songs Go,” penned by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse and plucked from the relatively unsuccessful “Miss 1917.” Tripping back through a half-century of Broadway revues to unearth enduring standards and forgotten jewels, this lovingly assembled compilation of songs, sketches and dance numbers caps the unusually strong Encores! season on a note often as high as the giddying high C so effortlessly hit by its star, Kristin Chenoweth.
Marking the 100th anniversary this year of the first “Ziegfeld Follies,” Encores! built its three-show 2007 season around that staple of pre-television entertainment. Kickoff was an incisive reappraisal of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s “Follies,” which used the glitzy revue tradition as a prism through which to view the frayed edges of love and the shards of the American dream. Next was an effervescent revisitation of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart’s “Face the Music,” as light and fluffy as “Follies” was dark and ruminative.
Restaging a full-fledged vintage revue presents more of a problem given the inconsistency of most of the shows, the hoary jokes and ethnic stereotypes that date the humor and the obscurity for contemporary audiences of many of the satirical targets. Producer Jack Viertel, who conceived “Stairway,” and director Jerry Zaks have solved the problem by throwing off the shackles of a plotless existing book (also allowing their cast to escape the script-in-hand factor that often impedes Encores! performers) and concocting a show that’s almost all highlights.
Stringing together, in more or less chronological order, material that stretches from 1901’s “The Little Duchess” through “Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952,” Viertel and Zaks’ aim was to reflect early 20th century U.S. history in songs that depict Prohibition, the Jazz Age, the Depression, WWII, civil rights and social change.
That overarching shape could be better defined, but the show zips along thanks to its charming cast, the wit of its song lyrics and the energy of Warren Carlyle’s eclectic choreography, embracing ragtime and flapper numbers, Astaire elegance and two showstopping tap routines led with a balance of precision and expressive abandon by limber beanpole Kendrick Jones.
Even if the patchier second act doesn’t quite sustain the buoyancy of the first, Zaks has packaged the show with sufficient panache to give an obsolete entertainment form freshness and vitality, the fluid segues between numbers mirrored in the transitions of Paul Gallo’s gorgeous lighting.
Doing much of the heavy lifting are three terrific performers. There’s no one on an American stage who makes self-adoration funnier or more endearing than Chenoweth and her impeccable vocal skills are given a full-range workout here, from traditional musical comedy numbers to trilling light operetta. Kevin Chamberlin and Christopher Fitzgerald are equally impressive in solos, duets and, memorably, as a trio with Chenoweth in “Triplets,” Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s classic about infant siblings seething with murderous resentment.
Like a bona fide vaudevillian, Chamberlin steps in for Jimmy Durante in a delightful “I Know Darn Well I Can Do Without Broadway,” with interludes from Chenoweth subbing for Fanny Brice on “I’m an Indian” and Fitzgerald standing in for Beatrice Lillie on “Get Yourself a Geisha.” As he showed in the recent “Gutenberg! The Musical!,” Fitzgerald is a comic goldmine; he’s hilarious doing multiple goombah Italians in “Josephina Please No Lean-A on the Bell.”
Typifying the innocent escapism of the musical revue, the material looks more often to the silver lining than the cloud. However, act one closes with a lovely, melancholy progression from the ensemble in top hat and tails embodying the urbane resilience of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” through the sobering poverty-line reality of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?,” sung with affecting understatement by Chamberlin, to the romantic sadness of Chenoweth’s “Dancing in the Dark.” There’s also Capathia Jenkins’ delicate treatment of Berlin’s haunting “Supper Time,” in which a grief-stricken woman wonders what to tell her children about their recently lynched father.
Jenkins channels Ethel Waters also in “My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More” from “George White’s Scandals,” bumping her hips with nonchalant sexy attitude. Jenkins and Chenoweth make an odd but appealing pair on hot hell raiser, “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil,” from the 1922 Berlin show, “The Music Box Revue.”
Ruthie Henshall breathes smoky-voiced sophistication into the torch songs “Memories of You” and “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” while Jenn Gambatese and Shonn Wiley make sweet young lovers in a handful of songs, notably Rodgers and Hart’s timeless “Manhattan,” its droll rhymes neatly intercut with Michael Gruber doing “Mountain Greenery.” Playing the debonair encroacher who fails to steal away the girl, Gruber follows with a smooth song and dance to “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan.”
The show boasts some rousing singing by the male chorus, notably on army number “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” led by Fitzgerald, and “Going Home Train,” with Jones weaving among the men like a locomotive.
While it allows Chenoweth to scale her operatic highs, the unwieldy comic finale, “Catch Our Act at the Met,” from 1951 Jule Styne/Comden and Green show “Two on the Aisle,” is an underwhelming capper, suggesting that the material got weaker as the revue slipped out of fashion. But the show’s infectious nostalgia is recaptured nicely with a return to the first “Ziegfeld Follies” in 1908 and a transporting full-cast encore of “Shine on Harvest Moon.”