'The Broadway Musicals of 1931'

While 1931 was the year more than 2,000 banks closed at the height of the Great Depression, the latest concert in the Broadway by the Year series focused mainly on the bright side.

While 1931 was the year more than 2,000 banks closed at the height of the Great Depression, the latest concert in the Broadway by the Year series focused mainly on the bright side. This approach was epitomized in opening number “Love Is Sweeping the Country,” which found an appealing ensemble singing the jubilant declaration from “Of Thee I Sing,” the presidential satire by the Gershwins, George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskin.

Host Scott Siegel told the now-familiar story of “As Time Goes By.” Herman Hupfeld’s classic torch song first appeared in a short-lived revue called “Everybody’s Welcome” and subsequently enjoyed modest success as recorded by crooner Rudy Vallee. Eleven years later it was used in “Casablanca,” proving that “moonlight and love songs are never out of date.” A beguiling and bejeweled Karen Akers framed the evergreen with the kind of reflective storytelling of which she is a master.

Akers returned to sing “Dancing in the Dark,” the beautiful Howard Dietz-Arthur Schwartz ballroom ballad from “The Band Wagon.” With Mara Davi and Jeffry Denman partnering on a graceful waltz, the moment boasted the Technicolor glory of an old MGM screen musical.

Denman, who choreographed the concert, provided an amusing, tongue-twisting account of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” penned in a matter of days by Noel Coward in a Far East jungle.

A staple of the series, now in its ninth season, is an unmiked performance. This time the task fell to F. Murray Abraham in a wistfully reflective “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” the optimistic observation of depression endurance by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, introduced by Ray Bolger in the 11th edition of “George White’s Scandals.”

Who would have thought? Apparently there is an actual tune entitled “The Torch Song,” introduced in a revue called “The Laugh Parade.” Barb Junger, fresh from her Cafe Carlyle debut, defined the heartbreak with smoky grandeur. A regular in the series is Kendrick Jones, a devilishly lithe and lean tap-dancer who, with comely partner Melinda Sullivan, accented Harold Arlen’s “You Said It” with agile slides and spirited tap.

Legendary showman Billy Rose was recalled with “I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a 5 and 10 Cent Store),” sung by a ukulele-strumming Chip Zein. Kerry O’Malley, soon to appear at the Paper Mill Playhouse in “1776,” offered a show-stopping turn with “Cigarettes and Cigars,” a telling confessional from “The Ziegfeld Follies.” With an accompanying narrative that defined the gloom and desperation of an era, O’Malley left her listeners emotionally limp and profoundly in awe.

Broadway by the Year continues May 11 with a retrospective of 1944 (“On the Town,” “Bloomer Girl” and “Mexican Hayride”) and June 15, celebrating 1970 (“Company,” “Applause” and “Purlie”).

The Broadway Musicals of 1931

Town Hall; 1,500 seats; $50, top

Production

A Town Hall and Broadway by the Year presentation, conceived, written and hosted by Scott Siegel. Directed by Brad Oscar. Choreography, Jeffry Denman. Musical director-pianist, Ross Patterson. Reviewed March 30, 2009.

Cast

With: Karen Akers, F. Murray Abraham, Mara Davi, Jeffry Denman, Kendrick Jones, Kerry O'Malley, Brad Oscar, David Pittu, Melinda Sullivan, Tony Yazbeck, Chip Zein.

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