William Wheatley, the program annotator for the touring Hoagy Carmichael Centennial Celebration, nailed the issue squarely. He writes about the opposing passions that drove Carmichael’s music, the yearning for “the solid, warm, endearing things in life” that interlaced uneasily with the freedom and irreverence of being a “jazz maniac.” What he’s talking about is a unique brand of Indiana-bred nostalgia transplanted into an urban, wisecracking, 20th century world — a complex ethos that, alas, this revue of Carmichael’s songs has yet to tap into.
Clearly the performance in Thousand Oaks on Thursday night — the first in a 53-city tour of one-nighters that ends in Wilmington, Del., on March 13 — seemed like an out-of-town tryout, with several kinks and seams showing. The idea of constructing a panorama of Carmichael’s career in anecdote and song, from his early immersion into the Jazz Age to his heyday as an iconic singer/
pianist/actor/composer, is a good one, but it hasn’t jelled yet. Emcee Tony Waag has yet to find the right rhythm to keep the narrative running smoothly and there were a few historical inaccuracies and mispronunciations.
The good news is that the show already has a solid 14-piece big band, with some potent soloists who ought to be exploited more often. They were treated often to first-class, brightly voiced, easy-swinging arrangements by such experts as Don Sebesky, Jonathan Tunick, Harold Wheeler and musical director Tom Fay (all of whom, save Fay, were uncredited in the program) that straddle the ground between jazz and Broadway.
So far, though, the show’s six hard-working young singers have settled for fairly straight-forward, often belted renditions that didn’t begin to touch the heart of much of the material; they need to live with these songs more and listen more closely to what their excellent band is doing. Not only that, the static projected backdrop behind the band, along with the hard-sell performances by the vocalists, reminded one of a telethon — all relentlessly cheery showbiz and little soul.
Easily the most effective segment was an encyclopedic dissertation on the evolution of “Stardust,” taking this striking tune through a demonstration of its bouncy original tempo, a good re-creation of Louis Armstrong’s famous 1931 trumpet solo, treatments by Artie Shaw, Don Costa and Gordon Jenkins, a soft-shoe dance with whistling, and finally a mass sing-along. With some trimming — for instance, get rid of the distracting low brasses under the opening narrative — this could be an even more moving sequence.