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Stairway to Paradise
2007 City Center's Encores!

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Christopher Fitzgerald, Kevin Chamberlin,
and Kristin Chenoweth
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The revue is dead! Long live the revue! It's a challenge to prevent these words, or ones very similar, from crossing your mind - let alone your lips - during Stairway to Paradise, the grand and gawky finale of the 2007 City Center's Encores! series.

This most- and least-adventurous of all Encores! outings, which is smoothly directed by Jerry Zaks and runs through Monday, celebrates the melodious but oft-maligned revue by attempting to summon anew the glory it commanded during the first half of the 20th century. And with the help of a choice selection of songs, skits, and stars - particularly three irreplaceable ones in Kristin Chenoweth, Kevin Chamberlin, and Christopher Fitzgerald - it almost succeeds. Okay, half the time. Or close to it.

For even something like this, where the collection of scenes, numbers, and dance specialties has been assembled piecemeal from two dozen shows in (very) rough chronological order, the genre creaks more loudly than most audiences today will be able to bear. But though many of the shows represented here, stretching from The Little Duchess (1901) to New Faces of 1952, were originally aimed squarely at the tired businessman, the remnants now on display at Encores! do provoke some thoughts and feelings.

On one hand, you're elated that we no longer need rely on such frivolous fare for our daily entertainment, and that our more enlightened society no longer mocks African-Americans, Native Americans, or Asians as a matter of course the way a few of these selections do. (Let's set aside as aberrations certain broadcast personalities in the news lately.) But on the other, you're bewitched again - or maybe for the first time - by some of the most gorgeous, clever, and delightful songs ever to grace American music.

Unfortunately, at Stairway to Paradise, as with human bodies, you can't easily have one hand without the other. And here they're locked in a knock-down, drag-out fight that leaves no clear victor even after the curtain's rung down on what is alternately one of the most transporting and mystifying shows seen anywhere in New York this season.

If Chenoweth, Chamberlin, and Fitzgerald can't cure the schizophrenia of an evening that glides from operetta to military march to pop to torch and back again several times, they do what few others could: keep it under control. And they manage that by being exactly the type of versatile and resilient singing clowns that these shows routinely made into household names.

Kevin Chamberlin, Kristin Chenoweth,
and Christopher Fitzgerald
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Chenoweth, the spitfire comic with a golden soprano who scored on Broadway this season in The Apple Tree, moves from Victor Herbert romanticism to Irving Berlin jazz to socially aware comedy with the ease of adjusting the dial on a radio. (The first-act finale, "Dancing in the Dark" from Schwartz and Dietz's The Band Wagon, is her finest and most subdued vocal moment.) Chamberlin can channel Jimmy Durante one minute and be the archetypal heavy the next; he innately understands how far to go - or not go - for any joke. And Fitzgerald, one of the great overlooked national resources of musical comedy, can transform into a full annoyed family for Inside U.S.A.'s "Josephine Please No Lean on the Bell" or even into a gorilla who makes a talent-deficient starlet named Ms. Hilton look like a three-day-old banana peel.

Christopher Fitzgerald, Kristin Chenoweth,
and Kevin Chamberlin
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When they combine forces, in that "Gorilla Girl" sketch (written by Walter and Jean Kerr for 1949's Touch and Go), for "The Yellow Peril" about some tragically misplaced goldenrod, or in the Schwartz-Dietz "Triplets," they are hands-down the funniest thing you can see in New York today. The personify not only the spirit of revue, but of musical theatre at its uppercut-delivering, charismatic best.

They also remind you what's missing in so many of the secondary cast, who are daunted by equal or even greater material. Shonn Wiley and Jenn Gambatese charm as a pair of young lovers who traipse through a series of lovely ballads, but stake no claim to Schwartz and Dietz's "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" (also from Inside U.S.A.) or the Rodgers & Hart Garrick Gaieties classics "Manhattan" and "Mountain Greenery." Kendrick Jones does some marathon tapping of Warren Carlyle's choreography in the Jimmy McHugh-Dorothy Fields "Doin' the New Low-Down" and Harold Rome's innovatively overlapping "Going Home Train" from Call Me Mister, but somehow never kicks up the heat. Capathia Jenkins gives an adorable rendition of "Supper Time" from Berlin's As Thousands Cheer, which would be reason to cheer were it not about a black woman whose husband was just lynched by a racist mob.

Alas, ideal matings of singer and song are hardly to be expected with any regularity with material that was so tailored to specific talents' personalities. That's the crucial element of revue that Stairway to Paradise, despite Zaks's energetic production, doesn't capture. It's one thing to find a serenely sultry woman to smolder through Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf's "Memories of You" or Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye"; Ruthie Henshall fits the bill beautifully, but never makes either her own. With the exception of the heavenly central trio, no one does.

Which is why it's so important to treasure the likes of Chenoweth, Chamberlin, and Fitzgerald, who've somehow managed to escape the molding process responsible for creating so many of today's interchangeable performers. They're the one tangible connection we have to the effervescent and evanescent theatre this review of revues is trying so hard to honor.

Well, the three of them and the music. Though much of it has been lovingly resuscitated by musical director and arranger Rob Berman and (where necessary) orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, as a whole the score, however patchwork, speaks on its own. The must-hear curtain call selection, especially: "Shine On Harvest Moon" is nearly a century old but is of such blood-level familiarity it might as well be a TV commercial jingle.

It, more than any other song, points up the irony in the show's de facto theme statement, "The Land Where the Good Songs Go." Sung to stuffed-shirt perfection by J. Mark McVey, it's fascinating to hear how even in 1917 Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse were musically lamenting the bygone tunes of the past. Yet for the next few days it's easy enough to find that mythical land: at Stairway to Paradise. But while it's definitely a nice place to visit, don't bring your suitcase - it's packed to the rafters with plenty of baggage of its own.

Stairway to Paradise
2007 City Center's Encores!
Through May 14
City Center Main Stage, West 55th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: NYCityCenter

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