In their 10th collaboration, the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS), led by brilliant Artistic Director and pianist Steven Blier, and the Juilliard Ellen and James Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, represented by seven talented young singers—soprano Tiffany Townsend, mezzo-sopranos Kelsey Lauritano and Hannah McDermott, tenors James Edgar Knight, Alexander McKissick, and Aaron Mor, and baritone Theo Hoffman—reveled in a celebration, in the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at the Juilliard School on January 14, of the musical achievements of a host of “Great American Songwriting Teams.” Mary Birnbaum directed, Adam Cates devised choreography, and Leann Osterkamp, as musical assistant, sometimes joined Blier at the keyboard.
Blier and the ensemble began with what Blier called “the most cheerful song ever written,” Ray Henderson, Lew Brown, and Buddy DeSylva’s “Lucky Day,” from George White’s 1926 “Scandals,” certainly uplifting and complete with Cates’ choreography. Mor amused us with Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar parody, in a New Yawk Yiddish patois, “The Sheik of Avenue B,” written for Fanny Brice, with interpolated “Deedle daidle dum”s and an “oy vey” from one of the “goilies [who] sigh” for the alluring “wise guy.”
Richard Rodgers’ partnerships with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein were remembered with Lauritano’s engagingly wistful “It Never Entered My Mind,” from “Higher and Higher,” written with the former, and Townsend and Knight’s “No Other Love,” the audition song, with feeling, from “Me and Juliet,” with the latter’s lyrics.
George and Ira Gershwin’s works received their due from McDermott, with an upbeat “I Was Doing All Right,” from “The Goldwyn Follies,” 1937—the words sound torchy, but there’s a happy ending, after all—and Hoffman singing “Luckiest Man in the World,” from “Pardon My English,” winningly and dulcetly to Lauritano.
From Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz came Townsend’s “Blue Grass,” from “Inside U.S.A.,” at once breezy and bluesy, about a love lost in horsiest Kentucky, with a fetching high note at the end and a meaningful glance for the arriving McKissick, who very much embodied the Latin lover, romantically singing, in English and in Spanish, courtesy of Johnny Camacho, “You and the Night and the Music,” from “Revenge with Music,” with a big, operatic climactic top tone.
Lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were fêted for the collaboration with Jule Styne on music for “Peter Pan,” with Knight making a campy Hook, in the spirit of creator Cyril Ritchard, in “Captain Hook’s Waltz,” intimidating the ensemble and getting the guys to dance together. Tributes to Comden and Green’s work with Leonard Bernstein came with the ensemble’s lively “Wrong Note Rag,” with Osterkamp playing a piano four hands arrangement with Blier, to close the first half of the evening, and resigned and bittersweet “Some Other Time,” at the end of the performance, coming, respectively, late in the musicals “Wonderful Town” and “On the Town.”
Osterkamp contributed as well to Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s “Ascot Gavotte,” from “My Fair Lady,” to open the second half, with the ensemble capturing the essence of the blasé well-to-do, at the horserace, with deadpan delivery and McDermott scandalously disturbing the peace with Eliza Doolittle’s famous outburst, “Come on, Dover!!! Move your bloomin’ arse!!!” Knight, entertainingly creepy and nerdy, addressed “Real Live Girl,” from “Little Me,” by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, to Lauritano, and with Mor as the judge, Knight, McKissick, and Hoffman, as the crooked rich, slyly testified about financial assets ‘innocently’ hidden in a “Little Tin Box,” in the song from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s “Fiorello.”
The company tackled music of David Shire, to Richard Malby, Jr.’s lyrics, with Mor blithely failing to let McDermott get in a word edgewise, as he insisted “We Can Talk to Each Other,” from “Starting Here, Starting Now,” until she finally announced, “I am a lesbian!” and Lauritano, McDermott, and Townsend proudly declaring “I Want It All,” from “Baby.”
Works by composer William Bolcom, with words by Arnold Weinstein, are near and dear to Blier’s heart. Here Hoffman floated a controlled meditation “Blue,” from “Cabaret Songs,” and from “Casino Paradise,” Lauritano gave us an intriguing lament in “My Father the Gangster” and McKissick, as her gay brother, offered a catchy note on success via “The Establishment Route.”
After McDermott’s John Kander and Fred Ebb interlude, from “The Act,” written for Liza Minnelli, finding the right tonic for what ails her with daily matinee doses of “Arthur in the Afternoon,” the performance closed with a double dose of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Townsend’s matter-of-fact “I Ain’t Here,” her escape, in her mind, from an employer to whom she’s invisible, and the ensemble extolling the entrancing and potent power of “Love Potion Number Nine.”
Next on tap for NYFOS is the opening of the NYFOS Next season, on February 3, at Opera America’s National Opera Center, 330 Seventh Avenue, at 29th Street, Seventh Floor, with new music by Adam Guettel, George Steel, Juantio Becenti, Jonathan Dove, and Gabriel Kahane, sung by Meredith Lustig, Jonathan Estabrooks, and Hoffman, with NYFOS Associate Director Michael Barrett at the piano. Anticipated at Juilliard is Juilliard Opera’s presentation of Benjamin Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia,” on February 18, 20, and 22, conducted by Mark Shapiro and directed by Birnbaum, in the Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater. For further information about these and other events, visit web sites www.nyfos.org/next