What can make you smile for two hours? This past Wednesday, if you were lucky enough to be at Merkin Hall, your answer would have been the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS) concert Fats and Fields. With a brilliantly talented cast consisting of soprano Jennifer Aylmer, mezzo Judy Kaye, and baritones Jason Graae and James Martin, a group that could not only hold any Broadway stage but fill it with joy (and it should be noted that at Merkin they provided unmiked joy), and with NYFOS's artistic director Steven Blier at the piano and providing occasional commentary, Fats Waller and Dorothy Fields have rarely had it better.
Although Fats and Fields was surely a contrast to the group's last concert (which focused on settings of poetry by Alexander Blok and Anna Akhmatova composed by Shostakovich, Prokofiev and others), you never sensed that Blier and the NYFOS staff felt that this was an artistic compromise for the sake of commerce.
Even more important, you'd never have known from this concert that the songs of Waller, Fields and their collaborators weren't the sort of material that NYFOS specializes in. Not only does Blier play this music with the same care that he would bring to Brahms or Rorem, he plays it with complete idiomatic command and a lovely lightness and clarity. And he certainly knows how to gather together the right performers. One of the joys of the evening was the palpable pleasure radiated by the company, which was matched by the pleasure felt in the house.
On the classical side of the cast, we had Aylmer and Martin. Aylmer not only sang beautifully but also seemed completely at home both stylistically and (rarest of all for classical sopranos who perform from the Great American Songbook in concert) physically. Martin may be the only baritone who sings Falstaff, Figaro and Don Giovanni, and would also be at home in a production of Ain't Misbehavin'. On the Broadway side, there were Graae and Kaye. Graae moves wonderfully and can be a comic dynamo but he can also be a probing interpreter. I cannot pretend to be impartial when it comes to Kaye, but I have occasionally seen her when she was not at her best or was working with material that didn't ideally suit her. This was not one of those (rare) nights. Her warmth, her skill with comedy and her ability to communicate both the words of a lyric and the feelings behind them while singing with the utmost beauty were on full display.
Each performer shined in solo moments and also in duets and group numbers.
The versatile Martin suggested a gay-male Pearl Bailey on the Morton Gould-Fields "There Must Be Something Better Than Love." He seemed to channel operetta baritone Wilbur Evans in two duets with Aylmer, but he could also wonderfully evoke Waller himself on the Waller-Kirkeby "All That Meat and No Potatoes" (cleverly arranged as a duet with Kaye, who matched Martin in sass, attitude and scatting) and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."
Aylmer excelled in somewhat bluesy material like the McHugh-Fields "Don't Blame Me" and the Waller-Marion "There's a Man in My Life." She and Kaye sang gorgeously together in the Waller-Maltby "The Jitterbug Waltz," which included another unexpected and delightful duet, from Graae and Martin on oboes. (Yes, oboes.) This is not a song that you would expect to bring down the house, but it did. Any worries that Aylmer and Kaye might have trouble providing "Baby, Dream Your Dream" with the right idiomatic feel were quickly dispelled.
Graae was a delight in uptempo numbers, but he also fully conveyed the sadness and longing of the McHugh-Fields "Blue Again." He and Kaye could not have been sweeter in the Schwartz-Fields "Alone Too Long," but they also found some surprising comedy in it. And after seeing the very expressive physicality Graae brought to his insanely entertaining performance of the Coleman-Fields "Welcome to Holiday Inn," I'll never think of the song the same way again.
Kaye found a sweet pride in the Schwartz-Fields "He Had Refinement," bringing out the song's humor by never pushing for it. She brought a lusty charm to the Waller-Brooks-Razaf "My Man Is Good for Nothin' but Love," and her accustomed tenderness, poignance and musicality to a couple of ballads, best of all the Kern-Fields stunner "Remind Me." In an encore of Kern and Fields, Kaye and Graae gave joyful life to "A Fine Romance," which was followed by a rich-toned and sensitive "The Way You Look Tonight" from Aylmer and Martin.
Since no one was credited with the staging, I can only assume that the four performers, perhaps with an assist from Blier, didn't need any help. I have never seen a musical revue staged any better than this evening was.
This was a concert that could easily move to a small Broadway house, where it might give a lot of people a lot of pleasure for a long time. The NYFOS subscribers and nonsubscribers who were able to get a ticket were lucky indeed, and judging from their response they knew it.
Also see Alan's interview with Judy Kaye