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Broadway & Berg: Broadway Show Stoppers and the Theater Songs of Neil Berg

July 18, 2011

By Roy Sander

Feinstein's at Loews Regency – July 5 - 16

"Broadway & Berg: Broadway Show Stoppers and the Theater Songs of Neil Berg" - yes, it may be a cumbersome title for a show, but it is descriptive. To be even more precise, this revue gives us eleven selections by Neil Berg and five from Broadway - a ratio that suits me just fine, for I have been a fan of Berg's songwriting since 1994 when I saw Asylum in the Night, the Bistro Award-winning revue of his work. As I commented then, "few people on the current scene are writing songs that are as passionate, melodic, and unabashedly romantic." What's more, his writing possesses a theatrical flair and sensibility. And the inclusion of Broadway showstoppers is not merely a commercially motivated device; rather, Berg can claim the right to do so, for he is the creator and co-producer of Neil Berg's "100 Years of Broadway," reportedly the country's number one touring Broadway concert, playing over 120 cities in 2010/2011. (The 11-to-5 ratio may not obtain at each performance of "Broadway & Berg," for the cast and programming change slightly from night to night.)

The enterprise is a gratifying combination of Gemütlichkeit and artistry. Sitting at the piano, Berg narrates the proceedings, telling us - well, it's more like chatting with us - about the songs and the shows they're from, how he was drawn to writing music, his childhood influences, and how he met each of the cast members, etc. Again quoting my 1994 review, "Berg is as disarmingly unassuming as his artistry is commanding." At times the performers make comments that augment Berg's narration. It's clear that Berg's relationship with the singers is not only professional; there's a palpable foundation of friendship, and it casts a warm glow on the evening. For example, Rob Evan sings "This Is the Moment" (Frank Wildhorn, Leslie Bricusse, from Jekyll & Hyde) immediately following a brief personal exchange with Berg; though he sang the song many times on Broadway, this time it has additional poignancy.

Berg's piano provides the only instrumental accompaniment, and it proves more than ample. Indeed, towards the end of the show he performs a piano solo, "The Stream," a composition he wrote for his grandmother. The piece is musically lush and rich with imagery, and his playing is masterly.

Rob Evan also lends his beautiful tenor to Berg's "Broken Arrow" (from Hexed in the City), a story song of hope and dreams, and he delivers a striking rendition of "No More Roxane" (Berg, lyric by D.J. Salisbury, from The Man Who Would Be King), a cry of tormented passion. Baritone William Michals has one of the most thrilling voices I've ever heard, and I doubt that "Some Enchanted Evening" (by you know who, from you know what) has ever sounded better. His voice is so glorious that even if he did no more than make sounds, I'd pay to listen - but with "Up There" (from The Man Who Would Be King), a dramatic aria in which the character fervently anticipates his forthcoming rise to glory, he shows that he is also a splendid actor. Then Evan joins him for "Kingdom Calling," a duet from the same show that has the two adventurers envisioning their lives as kings; the song is less intense than "Up There," taking a practical view of the perks that come with that exalted station; though this song's tone is lighter, the music is no less strong, and the voices of the two men combine magnificently.

Lawrence Clayton sings "An Angel" from Grumpy Old Men (Berg, lyric by Nick Meglin). It is a very pretty song about Ariel, the woman who's moved across the street (the character played in the 1993 film by Ann-Margret), and Clayton's rendition is affecting and romantic. Luba Mason sings two songs from that show. With "Ariel View," which is Ariel's response to the townspeople's gossiping about her, Mason fails to establish the character and to make her gestures and interpretation specific to both the character and the lyrics, so the song doesn't land. She does better with "The Mirror Lies, though she still could be more specific. She also performs Kander & Ebb's "All That Jazz" - with the right sensual voice, the right sexy look, and the right saucy attitude, yet while her rendition is unexceptionable, it is also uninspired; it lacks a personal vision.

Berg's wife, soprano Rita Harvey, reprises a song she performed in the recent Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof, "Far From the Home I Love" (Harnick & Bock). She sings it quite well, but she would have greater emotional impact if during the song she didn't scan the room trying to play to its extremities; it dispels focus. (With ballads, letting the audience come to the singer is generally the more effective choice.) She does a lovely job on Berg's "Fairytale" (from Pollyanna), a touching song about not losing the optimism and benevolence of youth. In a guest spot the night I attended, Natalie Toro gave a powerful reading of Berg's "Rain" (from the rock musical The Twelve), a mother's passionate prayer for the safe return of her son. To close the show, Lawrence Clayton leads the entire cast in the rousing spiritual "Rise Up" (also from The Twelve) - it is, indeed, rousing.

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phone: 510-206-6111
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