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Regional Reviews: Chicago

It's an Art: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz
Davenport's Piano Bar

Stephen Schwartz
In a year of 80th birthday celebrations for another Broadway composer-lyricist whose name is also Stephen S., Christopher Pazdernik has created an overdue retrospective of the work of the other one. While Pazdernik's Stephen has neither a magazine nor a Broadway theater named for him (yet—but maybe he will by the time Wicked ends its run early in the 22nd century), he's had a significant impact on the art form nonetheless. Pazdernik, who directed and narrates the show, tells his audience the little known fact that Schwartz is the only composer to have had three shows reach 1,900 performances or more on the Great White Way (Pippin, The Magic Show and Wicked). If 1,900 is an arbitrary threshold (and it is), it's a surprising and impressive statistic nonetheless.

It's an Art gives a historically linear review of Schwartz's career, using a sampling of mostly lesser known songs from each of his stage musicals. That means there's no "Day by Day," no "Magic o Do" or "Corner of the Sky," and no "For Good," though we do hear "Defying Gravity." The songs are well-chosen to demonstrate the unique voice of this child of the sixties, who brought a '60's flower-child folk-rock sensibility to Broadway in Godspell and Pippin and kept a distinct humanism in his lyrics even as his compositions began to meld other influences into his solidly theatrical songs.

Pazdernik gives an enthusiastic commentary on the numbers, performed by three top performers of Chicago's non-Equity musical theater scene. The trio of Ryan Lanning, Charissa Armon and Courtney Freed—all sure singers and strong actors—opens the revue with a medley of the unrecorded "Prologue" from Godspell and its better-known "Finale." The boyish Lanning moves into a charming version of "Extraordinary" from Pippin, which Armon follows with a wistful "I Guess I'll Miss the Man" from that show. Schwartz is a master of the 'I want' song, of which Pippin has two ("Corner of the Sky" as well as "Extraordinary") and Lanning gives an emotional reading of the little-known but powerful "Out There," with Schwartz's lyrics and Alan Menken's music written for Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Freed and Armon do a flashy "Solid Silver Platform Shoes" from The Magic Show, followed by Freed's reading of that show's "Lion Tamer," in which the singer dreams of finding her "special calling ... only she can do." Two of Schwartz's songs from Working provide showcases for the women's punchy comic talents. Armon is the waitress with a sense of theater described by Studs Terkel in the book on which the musical is based, waltzing around her restaurant as she contends "It's an Art" (to be a great waitress). Freed nearly stops the show as Terkel's supermarket checker in "I'm Just Movin'," her hands believably pantomiming the checker's pushing of groceries down the checkout belt.

Like that other Stephen, Schwartz sometimes writes lyrics to other people's music. In addition to his work with Menken (which includes Disney's Pocahontas, and Enchanted, not represented in this revue), his lyrics for Rags, with music by Charles Strouse are sampled here with "Blame it on the Summer Night," given a sultry rendition by Armon. Schwartz's skill and humanity as a lyricist, evident throughout this revue, are best displayed in a song from his solo vocal album called "Forgiveness' Embrace." Originally written for a show called True Home, it's about making peace with one's past.

"I forgive my poor flawed parents for the things they could not be.
I forgive my long lost lovers for not completing me.
And the hardest thing of all now,
I forgive myself the sin of not being all I planned
And all I thought I should have been."

Performed by Lanning, it's the emotional high point of the revue, though Armon's "Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife is a close second. Pazdernik channels Patti LuPone to give the history of that show's troubled origins—its closing on the road before arriving on Broadway and the story of producer David Merrick stealing the charts for "Meadowlark" from the pit so the song couldn't be performed during tryouts. Here, "Meadowlark" follows a trio of songs from Children of Eden—another Schwartz musical not yet performed on Broadway. It precedes Freed and Lanning's duet of "Defying Gravity" before the cast closes the revue with the lively and upbeat "Big Red Plane" from Schwartz's children's musical Captain Louie. It's a surprising yet apt choice for a finale—an example of the sometimes childlike hope and energy that runs through so many of Schwartz's songs. It's about time people took a greater look at the songwriter's body of work, as Pazdernik, Armon, Freed, Lanning and music director/pianist Aaron Benham do so affectionately in this sweet little revue.

It's An Art: The Songs of Stephen Schwartz will be performed at Davenport's Piano Bar, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago, on May 9th and 16th, 2010. $13.00 cover, 2 drink minimum. For more information, visit or call 773-278-1830.

Photo: Joan Lauren

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