Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

An Evening with Sammy Cahn: It's Almost Magic

Also see Bob's review of Immoral Imperatives

Come Fly With Me: The Songs & Stories of Sammy Cahn will be providing delightful don't miss entertainment for lovers of The Great American Songbook through May 16 at Metuchen's Forum Theatre.

Sammy Cahn made a memorable 1972 appearance during the legendary early years of the Lyrics and Lyricists series at Manhattan's 92nd Street Y abetted by three singers and a pianist. The evening was so special that in 1974, with only the slightest of modifications, he brought his presentation to Broadway under the title Words and Music, where it was a critically acclaimed success. In subsequent years, he performed the show in London and on tour.

The presentation written in its entirety by Cahn was an exceedingly fine work of popular art, but it is doubtful that many thought of it as anything more than a richly entertaining concert style entertainment by the extremely clever lyricist. With Cahn's passing in 1993, I would not have expected to ever see it again.

However, to our great good fortune, someone came up with the idea that the work could be revived with an actor performing the role of Sammy Cahn. And so, bedecked with a new title, it is now providing New Jersey audiences with one of the most delightfully entertaining evenings of the theatre season.

If it is an evening of the "...and then I wrote" variety, and I'm not ready to concede that it is, it transcends the limitations of the genre. When seen with an actor portraying Cahn, it feels more like the one man plays celebrating such writers as Mark Twain and Charles Dickens which have enriched our stages for so many years. Unerringly, Cahn was able to organize the stories and observations which made him a terrific raconteur to fit what has proven to be an ideal format for a humorous autobiographical musical play which deserves to become part of our stage literature.

At this point in time, the credit line "Book and Lyrics by Sammy Cahn" would be most appropriate, and would alleviate the need for the extended awkward title.

There is as much joy in the anecdotally told story of a musically talented Jewish boy born in 1913 on New York's Lower East Side who became one of America's most successful lyricists as there is in hearing his wonderful songs. The emphasis is not so much on detailed autobiography as it is on telling some good stories about Cahn's writing with the likes of composers Jule Styne, Jimmy Van Heusen, Saul Chaplin, Gene DePaul and Nicholas Brodsky for singers such as Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Mario Lanza.

Playing Cahn is the wonderful Bruce Adler. Descended from a family of outstanding artists of the American Yiddish stage, Adler is unparalleled as a singer-comedian-actor entertainer in that genre. Things being what they are, he has become a solidly reliable mainstay of the American musical theatre earning a Tony Award nomination for Crazy For You along the way. Believe me, Adler is expert at telling a good joke or story.

However, Adler has been misdirected here. Not only does he miss the intimate, acerbically cynical style of the verbally pugnacious Cahn, but Adler initially rushes through the stories at breakneck speed (triple the pace employed by Cahn himself) so that we are unable to sit back, relax and enjoy them.

Thus, it takes some time before the material and Mr. Adler himself begin to work their magic. However, once this happens, the evening soars to provide intelligent, witty entertainment.

At the performance reviewed, Adler seemed to miss a couple of key lines in the stories. While there is no doubt that he will get the voluminous material down pat, it might be an effective theatrical and pacing device to have his Cahn consulting a written script.

Part of Cahn's shtick is based on his lack of a professional singing voice (although he certainly was terrific at putting a song across). Adler, an excellent singer, could probably lend more credibility to his Sammy Cahn by employing the light, smooth style of the singing Styne.

The immensely talented, delightful and indefatigable Adler does not fail to work his charm on the audience. His well choreographed performance of "Walking Happy" includes a foray into the audience.

By the time Adler ends the show with an extended medley of "Come Fly With Me," "High Hopes" (with an audience sing-along), and "My Kind of Town," he has us eating out of his hand.

There are three vocalists on hand for some heavy duty singing. The lovely Kate Manning has a beautifully trained voice, but is neither overly operatic nor misses the sentiments of her lyrics. Notable are her renditions of "I'll Walk Alone" and "I Only Miss Him When I Think of Him." Remember her name. If there is any justice, we will be hearing a lot more of Ms. Manning in the future.

The veteran Avery Sommers (she replaced Nell Carter on Broadway in Ain't Misbehavin') lends distinction and a jazzy style to the proceedings. Her "I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" is a delight as is her "The Second Time Around."

Joseph LeBlanc, described in the program as "the young American tenor," is an opera singer essentially on hand as a stand-in for songs Cahn (and Nicholas Brodsky) wrote for Mario Lanza. LeBlanc has a truly melodious and powerful voice. A late addition to the cast, he garbled the lyrics of "Be My Love" and "Because You're Mine." Unfortunately, LeBlanc sings the Doris Day beauty "It's Magic" as if it were written by Brodsky and not Jule Styne.

Enough praise cannot be given to the brilliant pianist-musical director Michael Larsen. (I should note that I have been a fan of Larsen since I first met him twenty years ago.) The multi-talented Larsen plays foil to Bruce Adler as Cahn's various collaborators. An outstanding accompanist and arranger for cabaret and theatre artists, Larsen may be the finest pianist to have ever performed this show. Listen carefully to his piano when, as Van Heusen, Larsen is exhorted by Cahn to make their "Thoroughly Modern Millie" "cornier" and you will hear just how outstanding Larsen is. Bravo.

Some of the many other songs heard during the course of the evening include "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon," "I'll Walk Alone," "Day By Day," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "All The Way," "Love and Marriage," and "The Things We Did Last Summer."

Director Paul Blake may well be the person to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for the resurrection of all this wonderful material, but either a stronger or better attuned hand is needed on the rudder.

There is no program credit for either set design or costumes. However, the simple set (a piano bedecked with colorful flowers, stools and a sky blue background bordered with black curtains) is ideal. The ladies' dresses are flattering and attractive. The men are dressed appropriately.

Come Fly With Me ... has not yet reached its full potential. However, even with the work that remains to be done, it is too richly entertaining to miss.

Come Fly With Me: The Songs and Stories of Sammy Cahn continues performances through May 16 at the Forum Theatre Company, 314 Main Street, Metuchen, NJ 08840, box office 732-548-0582; online

Come Fly With Me: The Songs and Stories of Sammy Cahn directed by Paul Blake; Cast: Bruce Adler (Sammy Cahn) and Avery Sommers, Kate Manning, Joseph LeBlanc.

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Bob Rendell