Two decades of music is a lot to survey in one show, and making more than half a dozen prolific musical figures the subjects of "toasts" means only the tip of the tip of the iceberg is on view. Fortunately, the people on stage in The Park Avenue Whirl are clearly in love with the times and the tunes, and respect them - you're in the hands of real pros.
Daryl Sherman, on vocals and piano, is the sole female presence and, to use a term from the years saluted, she's a peach. She joins Vince Giordano (string bass, bass sax and vocals) and his band The Nighthawks, a half-dozen more musicians. The band is the obvious choice for the authentic feel desired for this show as their raison d'être is to recreate the sounds of the period in question. They play solos transcribed from old recordings and play not only the vintage arrangements but the actual period instruments. The bandleader and Daryl are among a handful of today's performers named as the best who continue the great popular music traditions in musicologist Ken Bloom's new The American Songbook. Elegant balladeer Marion Cowings provides several smooth baritone turns and the presence of his son Alexander, a tap dancer, makes it that much more a variety show.
Even though Whirl is being presented in a theater, it's a nightclub-style concert. Although numerous music personalities are honored, no one is playing any of the characters, and what's spoken between numbers is simply (too simply for my taste) a bit of fondly told information to put something in context. Rather than perfunctory comments, more anecdotes or quotes from famous folks of the era could be more interesting.
The show's honorees are composers George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Duke Ellington (specifically his Cotton Club work), Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, orchestra leader Ambrose, and Bobby Short who came to fame after the period but favored its songs and elegance. The tone of the show shifts and feels a bit tentative in parts. It's not really tight enough to be a well-oiled machine and not loose enough to feel like a jam. (No director is listed.) The performers are gracious to the point of being very modest and clearly don't aim to take focus away from the songs by asserting their own personalities onto them. Happily, there are lots of wonderful songs and lots of musical talent and pleasing sounds here. It's a low-key, relaxed evening, entertaining and charming. The set list is not quite set; the printed program states, "Tonight's program will be chosen from the following:" and names 35 numbers, though at the performance I attended, a few not listed were heard. It's a generous feast (there is an intermission, and there's a bar one flight up).
Daryl Sherman has for years been a reliably classy jazz performer whose joy in great songs is evident in both her singing and piano playing. With a radiant smile (lipstick matching the shade of her attractive bright red dress) and light voice, unassuming personality and overall warmth, she's always charming. The sweetness of her vocal tone and eternal romanticism in her approach long ago made her a favorite of mine. Her best moment was the tender "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" in a section of songs by British writers. Daryl has a special connection with Cole Porter as she has a long-running gig playing at the Waldorf-Astoria on Porter's own piano, so of course a few Porter selections find her on familiar, satisfying ground. Here she's using a vintage Steinway that adds to the flashback feeling. It's green (!) with a floral design and the program says it's for sale.
Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks are exciting to hear, playing with carefully polished solo and ensemble work. Playing the bass and saxophone (and for one number, the tuba), Vince works in grand style. His singing voice really sounds like a big band singer from the period doing what was called then the "vocal refrain" section. On the night I attended, his eyes were often looking down at the sheet music, however, and this prevents a complete connection with the audience through more eye contact and facial expressions. The brass, reeds, drums and guitar players each get their moments in the sun with solos. "Broadway Rhythm" and "Cotton Club Stomp" showcase them well, and "Happy Feet" is a great burst of energy, with the excitingly versatile tap dancer Alexander Cowings coming out as the first half ends with a bang. (He's only on stage for a few numbers but each appearance is dazzling and dynamic.)
Baritone Marion Cowlings cuts a slim, highly elegant figure in formal attire. Grace personified, his deep tones and gestures honor material like "(On the) Street of Dreams" and "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart." He relaxes near the end, having fun with "Jeepers Creepers." There are only a few vocal duet moments in the whole show, which seems a missed opportunity.
With indestructible great material like "Cheek to Cheek," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" and the occasional oddity (a fun "Swing Time in Honolulu" from a rarely turned page in the Ellington song book), there's plenty in this nostalgic night to delight.
Park Avenue Whirl runs through New Year's Eve at 59E59 Theater's Theater A on East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues. Tickets ($50) at www.TicketCentral.com or by phone: 212-279-4200.