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Listen to My Heart: The Songs Of David Friedman

Theatre Review by Jonathan Frank

In this age when irony and cynicism are en vogue, when simplicity is not in fashion but overly manufactured complexity is 'in,' it is more than a little refreshing to hear songs that simply and honestly express feelings and emotions sans layers of archness or self-aware commentary. And in this era of musicals cobbled together with pre-existing numbers shoehorned into a book to the point of absurdity, it is nice to see a show that is not only content to simply be a musical revue, but revels in its identity and wears the mantle like a finely made garment.

Listen to My Heart: The Songs Of David Friedman is a collection of over two dozen songs by a songwriter who, while not being a household name, has had his work appear in almost every house in America (at least every household with children or Disney fans in them). He is best known, to readers of movie credits at least, as the conductor and vocal arranger for such Disney classics as Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Aladdin, as well as writing songs for its sequel, Aladdin: Prince of Thieves. He also has two multi-platinum songs to his credit: the Diana Ross hit, "You're There" and "Open Your Eyes to Love," which is featured on the soundtrack to The Lizzie McGuire Movie. But unless one is a cabaret fan in a major metropolitan area, his songs, many of which have become nouveau standards in the cabaret world, are largely unknown.

That may be about to change with Listen to My Heart, now playing in the upstairs space at Studio 54. Friedman, with director Mark Waldrop (When Pigs Fly), has crafted a revue that, while containing no overt unifying book or structure ala Putting It Together, consists of motifs and story arcs that weave the songs together into a satisfying whole. Friedman is a master of illustrating the minutia, which will delight many but frustrate others. In Friedman's musical world, when one meets one's true love, it is not with trumpets sounding but with quiet wonder ("What I Was Dreaming Of"). The biggest tragedy faced in his songs is not a swift abandonment or cataclysmic demise, it is the gradual growing apart, as in "What I'd Had in Mind," or becoming what one fears the most, in "I'm Not My Mother" (both with lyrics by Muriel Robinson). When dealing with the loss of a loved one, it is not with anger or by railing at the heavens, but with quiet resignation and even hope ("You're There," with lyrics by Alix Korey). Even his anthems, such as "Help Is On The Way," "I'll Be Here With You," and "We Can Be Kind" (all of which, incidentally, are linked to the late, great Nancy LaMott, for whom Friedman was musical director and record producer), have become legendary in certain circles as they have been embraced by choirs and charities across the country as they possess a simple, understated honesty that is either refreshingly honest or maddeningly naïve depending on one's taste and emotional state (this viewer not only firmly fell in the former camp, but found himself oftentimes in tears, something rarely, if ever, experienced when one is seeing a show through a reviewer's distancing gaze).

The cast is simply marvelous. Anne Runolfsson (best known as the stand-by in Victor/Victoria), who possesses one of the most beautiful and emotive of voices, is especially effective on simple, emotionally raw and honest numbers like "What I Was Dreaming Of," "We Can Be Kind" (in which she not only had the unenviable task of living up to Nancy LaMott's memory but following comedic powerhouse, Alix Korey, in the literally show-stopping number "My Simple Wish") and "Nothing in Common" (a tender love song that is one of the two truly goose-bump inducing numbers in the show). Runolfsson does get to break loose with "Two Different Worlds," a number she introduced on the album I'll Be Here With You: The Songs of David Friedman, which was originally written for the unlikely (and non-occurring) pairing of Placido Domingo and Linda Eder, and which, for the show, got turned into a nearly soft-porn love fest with Michael Hunsaker. Not surprisingly, Alix Korey (last seen on Broadway as Mama Morton in Chicago) gets the lion's share of the comic material, including her long-held signature tune, "My Simple Wish," "I'm Not My Mother" and "If I Were Pretty." Although Korey is a master of comic timing (in addition to possessing one of the biggest belts around), she is equally adept at playing the truth and emotional underpinnings of any song. Allison Briner (Forbidden Broadway, Pete 'n' Keely) drew many an audience tear with "You'll Always Be My Baby," a tender number with lyrics by Barbara Rothstein. In addition to his over-the-top (and on the piano) beefcake performance in "Two Different Worlds," Michael Hunsaker (Ed, Sex and the City) also scores with the resigned heartbreak of "What I'd Had in Mind." Joe Cassidy (1776) proves not only to be a master at comedy ("If You Love Me, Please Don't Feed Me") but is equally adept at simple emotional honesty ("You're There"), and provides the second goose-bump moment of the show, a stellar performance of "Catch Me," a number concerning a suicidal individual that is easy to over play and hard to land.

While the show is well constructed and executed, there is one glaring flaw that is, well, the proverbial elephant in the living room. Given that the writer and director are openly gay and that many of Friedman's songs have become associated with AIDS organizations and charities, it is astonishing, and more than a tad insulting to this viewer, that this aspect was not remotely included in the show and, indeed, appears to have been actively worked against. While physical contact and even mock seduction occurs amongst the women in the show, the men barely even look at each other, even when a song contains a lyric with an overt gay reference. Even more frustrating, however, is what occurs after "Catch Me," a number that leaves Cassidy a hunched over emotional wreck. The follow up song, "I Can Hold You," sung by Hunsaker, is exactly what it sounds like: a song of comfort. It is largely delivered, however, with Hunsaker's back towards Cassidy, thus giving him no comfort or acknowledgement what so ever. As this runs counter not only to the song and its situation, but also against all human decency whatsoever, it is a puzzling and maddening choice by those involved.

The 'elephant' aside, Listen To My Heart is an entertaining revue ala Ain't Misbehavin' or Closer Than Ever that celebrates a composer whose songs certainly deserve wider exposure, and hopefully will be, thanks to a superb cast.


Listen To My Heart
Upstairs at Studio 54, 254 West 54th St. between Broadway & 8th Ave.
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