The image of a world-renowned songwriter alone at a Steinway grand on an expansive stage backed by a live cityscape of skyscraper towers and Central Park treetops is well-nigh irresistible, especially when said composer is an unassuming kid from the suburbs made good. Alan Menken, in his first concert-with-band in 35 years, charmed his way through an “and then I wrote” scrapbook to a friendly and friend-filled house.
Menken, who has eight Academy Awards, started his personal tour with the title song from “Beauty and the Beast.” “That first song was an Oscar winner,” he noted. “I’ll be saying that all night. I shouldn’t — but I can!”
The Hollywood hits kept coming through the 29-song set, although Off Broadway musical “The Little Shop of Horrors” was more heavily represented than the composer’s numerous Disney ventures. There were also several surprises for the large theater contingent present. These included “I Wanna Be a Rockette,” from the “unproduced and unproduceable” Michael Bennett-Tom Eyen project “Kicks: The Showgirl Musical”; “Fabulous, Baby!” a disco-flavored production number from the upcoming “Sister Act” (which opens in London in June); and the title song from the still-in-development “Leap of Faith.”
Songs were laced with a charming and self-effacing narrative, the composer frequently gulping at a water bottle to help get through the next song. A major highlight of the affair was Menken’s singing — not for his vocal quality but rather for flavorful renditions of items such as “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” from “Little Shop” and “Friend Like Me” from “Aladdin.” While praising Robin Williams’ performance of the latter, he favored the audience with the Fats Waller-inspired song “the way it was supposed to sound.” And it was quite a performance.
Menken’s familiar Disney ballads were greeted with a typically warm response, while his irrepressible rhythmic numbers (“Friend Like Me,” “Under the Sea”) scored heavily. “Suddenly Seymour,” performed as a duet with Lucia Giannetta, was especially effective, and there was something extra special about hearing the composer sing “That’s How You Know” while looking over his shoulder down into Central Park (where the song was performed in the film “Enchanted”).
Menken mined humor from his collaboration with Stephen Schwartz, praising his lyricist while recalling that he wanted to kill him about 10 times, usually when Schwartz wandered too near a piano. Menken also demonstrated his own lyric-writing ability with a very funny song from the 1970s about a naive Texas boy who wandered into Ratner’s — the fabled dairy emporium on Delancey Street — where they served him “pink fish on a big stale donut slathered with gobs of cream cheese.” And the fish wasn’t even cooked.
Menken was backed by a five-person combo and an energetic vocal trio he called the Menkinettes (Badia Farha, Lucia Giannetta and Katherine Tokarz). While the band was conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman, the composer effectively led the program from the piano, going out of his way to apologize to the patrons facing his back who were relegated to staring at his “little bald spot.” But the band disappeared for the opening and closing. Whoever determined to start and end the show with the composer alone against the city lights has a canny theatrical sense.