The opening of the sixth season of the historically bountiful Broadway by the Year series celebrated 1930, a year that left the country in deep denial after the numbing Wall Street dive. Despite the encompassing gloom, Broadway flourished with 32 musical productions. In what may be the finest entry to date in the popular Town Hall series, that haul was revisited by an attractive assemblage of Broadway principals and gypsies who strolled through some two dozen showtunes, many of which became durable standards.
“There may have been a shortage of cash,” noted producer-host Scott Siegel, “but certainly not of songs.” One of Broadway’s high-water marks was “Girl Crazy,” which starred a 21-year-old Ethel Merman and introduced Ginger Rogers; in its pit, Red Nichols fronted a dandy gang of musicians, including Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Jimmy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. George and Ira Gershwin’s score contained “I Got Rhythm,” a rousing opener as sung here by the full cast; “Embraceable You” (Michael Winther and Celia Keenan-Bolger beautifully defined the big hug); and “But Not for Me,” its torchy sentiment mined by the always elegant Nancy Anderson.
And that’s not all “Girl Crazy” had to offer. “I’ve Got a Crush on You,” a ballad Frank Sinatra made his own, was romantically refreshed by a stately Emily Skinner, beautifully accented by Chris Howes’ violin solo. A bright madcap of a darling, Jennifer Simard, rediscovered the honkytonk glories of “Barbary Coast.” In a day when we’re lucky if we can exit the theater singing one hit song, “Girl Crazy” remains a tune-filled milestone.
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart were saddled with a half-dozen flops at the time. But a few melodic statements remained, including “Ten Cents a Dance,” with Anderson defining the tired feet of a dance-hall hostess, and “He Was Too Good to Me,” with a sweetly fragile Keenan-Bolger sharing the big hurt.
As always in the series, unmiked performances serve to re-create the way theater songs sounded before amplification. Cole Porter’s Big Apple blessing “Take Me Back to Manhattan,” sung by Deven May, and Winther’s carefree “Who Cares?” by the Gershwins were vigorously bounced off balcony walls.
Also on the concert slate: Harold Arlen, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, Eubie Blake, Sigmund Romberg, Kay Swift and Vincent Youmans.
Director Marc Kudisch gave the show a spare, slick look, providing a five-guy militant parade for the Gershwins’ “Strike Up the Band,” uniting the gals as streetwalkers for Porter’s “Love for Sale” and staging some playfully cute boy-girl pairings.
Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler offered an especially neat treat, putting Sean Martin Hingston and Shannon Lewis in a flirty acrobatic tango that brought the house down.
Up next on April 3 is 1956, a year remembered for “My Fair Lady,” “Bells Are Ringing,” “Candide,” “The Most Happy Fella” and “Li’l Abner.” Christine Andreas will top the cast.