Talking Jazz ... Broadway Jazz on Broadway
Tuesday, November 18 at the Iridium Jazz Club

by Rob Lester

What's that music in the air, with different chords and new shapes to songs we know in other ways? Broadway veterans will be singing Broadway in a jazz-inflected, but still very Broadway way on Tuesday night, November 18. You'll see cast members from Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and the original companies of Dreamgirls and Grease, and one actor whose most recent job just ended: being a cast member of A Tale of Two Cities.

Broadway Jazz on Broadway will take place at the popular Broadway district jazz club called The Iridium, downstairs at 1650 Broadway (at the corner of West 51st St.) since 1994. With its glowing blue neon light outside announcing its name, inside The Iridium serves dinner, snacks, drinks and all kinds of jazz music and big bands. The lively Ellen's Stardust Diner is on the street level of the same building, with singing waiters entertaining those having a meal. And it's right next door to the Winter Garden Theatre, so jazz club-goers and theatre audiences literally rubs shoulders with each other, rushing to Broadway shows (like Mamma Mia!, the longtime Winter Garden resident) or to see jazz stars like Les Paul (still holding court each Monday at age 93), Karrin Allyson (current engagement) and many more.

Raissa Katona Bennett
Broadway music and jazz music have always had a relationship. For purists of either style, it can be an uneasy or begrudging relationship. Lines blur, sometimes with satisfying results, depending on your taste and ear. Tuesday's singing host will be soprano Raissa Katona Bennett, five-year company member of Phantom of the Opera and understudy for the female lead (she also purred through many performances as part of the first national company of Cats and did the national company of Jason Robert Brown's Parade). She's been active in the cabaret world, too, as a host/coordinator for several events (including the free concerts with theatre, cabaret and jazz-leaning performers at Tudor City Greens, the garden across from the United Nations, and taking a turn hosting this Sunday night at The Algonquin Salon, a weekly open mic right in The Algonquin Hotel lobby). She's also been busy with her own winning current cabaret act, Putting Things Away. For Tuesday, she's putting things in perspective. Raissa will sing several songs, such as Brigadoon's "Almost Like Being in Love." As she told me earlier this week, "You can imagine the character in the song expressing the same emotions in a different musical setting."

Hardly allergic to jazz, but not a hardcore lifelong fan either, Raissa is open-minded and understands that some musical theatre fans are hesitant about jazz-ifying Broadway songs that are so much about character and telling a story or expressing a character. She likes and respects jazz, but for a Broadway song, the lyric and truth of the song must be respected. "If you destroy the integrity of the song, that's what's annoying to me!" She doesn't like strict labels, plain-speaking that if it's good, it's good, and great musical variety is an attraction for her. The evenings she curates and coordinates (and sings at) show a taste for eclectic mixes of performers and arrangements. Strict genre-keeping and by-the-book interpretations are restricting to her.

Ilene Kristen
Some Broadway numbers easily can be played with a jazz feel and instrumental solos. However, as Raissa affirmed, "a song that doesn't lend itself to that" won't be on the bill, but some singers have made surprising choices. They don't want to do what they normally do on stage. What's fun about this is that Broadway singers get to expand. Broadway performers can get pigeon-holed, which is what happened to Raissa after playing certain roles. She couldn't get seen at an Equity audition because "they'd pigeon-holed me as a comic singer." So what did she do? "I just went to the Open Call. Jessica Molaskey [also in her Cats cast] took me to Bloomingdale's for the perfect outfit." She learned to arrive at auditions in outfits that suggested a character without looking like she was in costume. She resisted her natural manner of joking around casually when interacting with others present, so as not to be perceived as strictly a funny lady. It worked.

Lee Summers
Raissa finds that participants in these group shows are eager to demonstrate their versatility and try new things. "Performers get to show what else they can do," said the actress who now is as likely to sing a character piece as something from opera or Phantom of the Opera. Another kind of "opera"—soap opera—has claimed the time of another Broadway Jazz on Broadway guest, Ilene Kristen, most recently in a leading role on "One Life to Live" (with two Daytime Emmy nominations). Years ago she was in the original production of Grease and just did a cabaret act at The Triad. That venue's manager, Lee Summers, will also be singing. I've seen him greet audiences and introduce acts there as host, but he also deftly performs rhythm and blues and pop. He was in both the original and revival productions of Dreamgirls and is comfortable with jazz. A musical theatre writer, his work has been showcased at the annual NAMT (National Alliance of Musical Theatre) presentations and other places. Also appearing will be Devin Richards, who has been in ten Broadway shows, most recently in a variety of roles in A Tale of Two Cities. The new live recording of his cabaret act at The Metropolitan Room, My Own Voice, includes his own take on such numbers as "Ol' Man River."

Devin Richards
Another singer quite eager to put her jazz chops to the test is Julie Reiber. As a Wicked standby, she's required to have her cell phone at hand, and to be within a certain number of blocks from the theatre—fortunately, the Iridium is just an avenue over from the Gershwin Theatre. And she's doing a song by the Gershwins. "The way I see it," she explained when I asked her about taking Broadway songs she knew and exploring them with jazz musicians, "it's like taking a new feel, still keeping true to the storytelling and acting of the song." Her choices for Tuesday include the title song from Cole Porter's Out of This World. "The changes from the standard way often gets my vote," she says, and Julie sees the prep and performance as a way to discover more about the song. She's not phrasing in her standard way with the standard by the Gershwins, "Someone to Watch Over Me." Through improvisation and a looser arrangement, she found

Julie Reiber
many ways to phrase familiar lines, and mentioned suddenly focusing on the emotion behind singing the verb "need" that brings a different focus to the line, "Won't you tell him please to put on some speed, follow my lead, oh, how I need someone to watch over me." (George Gershwin himself wrote the melody intending it as a brisk-tempoed number, but his brother Ira asked for it to be slowed down to make it a ballad and the yearning quality of its melodic line was brought forth and it was then dressed with his tender words.)

Tuesday's musical director is pianist Don Rebic, who is helping the singers find their way in the jazz waters as they rehearse and choose material. The ubiquitous Rebic has been

Don Rebic
working this season with Karen Akers, KT Sullivan and Grace Cosgrove (also the centerpiece in her monthly "singer soirees" called Grace Notes at Don't Tell Mamma). The other musicians for the night's sets are drummer Joe Rosenblatt and bass player Tom Kennedy.

Broadway Jazz on Broadway is part of an ongoing Tuesday night series of bands and singers at The Iridium, produced by ScoBar Entertainment and Scott Barbarino, himself a singer with his re-formed doo-wop group, The Bev-Naps. He's enjoyed being actively involved in all forms of music, including the jazz artists at the club and his many years working in cabaret, as a booker, manager, etc. and being on the board of directors of MAC, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. Other acts he's booked for Tuesdays include San Francisco's Entertainer of the Year winner Terese Genecco with her Little Big Band.

Tuesday's set list will not be the same for the 8:30 show and the late show at 10:30 pm, but all but one of the singers will be in both. Be prepared for some surprising choices and for this to be just the first of many nights to come at The Iridium where Broadway again shakes hands with jazz.

Broadway Jazz on Broadway, Tuesday, November 18. See the website for schedules and details. Advance tickets at; phone number at the club is 212-582-2121.

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