American Songbook

American Songbook's two-night spring series kicked off with Mary Cleere Haran's Gershwin tribute. The program, first performed in London four years ago, teamed Haran with distinguished accompanist Richard Rodney Bennett.

American Songbook’s two-night spring series kicked off with Mary Cleere Haran’s Gershwin tribute. The program, first performed in London four years ago, teamed Haran with distinguished accompanist Richard Rodney Bennett.

Haran’s fervent renderings of “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Love Walked In” revealed the kind of irresistible warmth she can bring to a song, and “Do It Again” has never been more seductive or subtly naughty.

Haran is a well-studied historian who always manages to reveal the facts and fun of a past era. Did you know, for instance, that George Gershwin was a swarthy party animal? “So swarthy,” Haran quipped, “that his five o’clock shadow appeared an hour earlier!”

Bennett used Gershwin’s original transcription to accompany the dark, atmospheric longing of “The Man I Love,” a song that had been tossed out of three musicals before being rescued by Lady Mountbatten for London’s smart soiree set. Perched on the piano, sans mike, the singer re-created legendary thrush Helen Morgan. It was a quiet triumph for the singer and the song.

Bennett can turn a sweet Gershwin tune into a veritable piano concerto. His sandy-voiced vocal duets with Haran were blessed with a jaunty air that transformed “I’d Rather Charleston,” “Nashville Nightingale” and “Fidgety Feet” into joyful echoes of the jazz age.

Saturday night set brought Broadway diva Judy Kuhn to the starlit penthouse stage.

Here is a lady with a big voice and a wide range. Her eclectic program ran the gamut from Laura Nyro and Tom Waits to Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers. Kuhn’s ability to fuse folksy pop with traditional Broadway is a credit to her imagination and style, as well as her interpretive skills.

From the gloomy poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Departure,” set to music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, to the gutsy Arlen-Mercer weather report “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Kuhn is a compelling storyteller with passion and deep-seated sensitivity.

Kuhn’s centennial encore salute to Rodgers was a haunting medley of “My Heart Stood Still” and “Lover” so supremely rapturous, that, indeed, one’s heart did stand still.

American Songbook

Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center; 250 capacity; $45

Production: Presented by Lincoln Center. Musicians, for Mary Cleere Haran: Richard Rodney Bennett, Link Milliman. For Judy Kuhn: Jeffrey Klitz, Zev Katz, Scott Neumann. Creative consultant for Kuhn, Julie Halston. Reviewed March 22, 23, 2002.

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