By R.M. Campbell
With no show to fill up the vast stage of the 5th Avenue Theatre — “Next to Normal” opens Feb. 22 — the company decided to slip in a sweet tribute to Valentine’s Day over the weekend.
Card shops go crazy on Valentine’s Day, flower emporiums do record business and restaurants are packed. Even libraries occasionally get into the act: Special Collections at the Suzallo Library on the University of Washington campus has a small, charming exhibition of vintage Valentine’s cards. Charming? Sweet? Novel? That and more.
Symphonies sometimes do something, although I am not sure Michael Feinstein’s “Sinatra Project” Monday night at Benaroya Hall qualifies. The 5th Avenue Theatre’s musical review, “My Funny Valentine,” does. This is an excursion into the American Songbook about love in its many facets, mostly ballads but not all. Most of the cast of nine singers and orchestra did familiar tunes, and I doubt that many in the audience objected. I didn’t.
These sorts of revues can drag on with the procession of singers on stage to do their number then off. This was not the case. Although the program did not name a director — at least that I could find — I am sure David Armstrong, the company’s artistic director, conducted the affair with a keen sense of the talented and diverse crew of singers, most of whom are well known to 5th Avenue audiences. They looked good and sang well in the narrow strip between the orchestra and audience. Ian Eisendrath, music director of the 5th Avenue, who ably conducted, must have played a huge hand in choosing the material and aligning it with the artists.
The evening began with a pair of tunes from “South Pacific.” With the hugely successful revival in New York, staged by Bartlett Sher, formerly of Intiman Theatre, the musical itself has once again come into focus. Not only does it have a first-rate book, with its advanced views on race and justice for 1949, its music and lyrics are unforgettable. Thank you Rodgers and Hammerstein. “Some Enchanted Evening” is one of the most beautiful songs ever written for the musical theater. It set everyone up for what was to come.
Cole Porter followed with his sophisticated and literate songs, a bunch of them scattered throughout the meadow of material. With tunes like this, one was reminded that a major virtue of these singers is that they enunciate the words. Very little was swallowed or rendered incomprehesible. Everything could be heard and what a pleasure. Sometimes, Porter was witty, as he could do so easily, and sometimes he was plaintive. It would have been a pity to miss that.
The show did not focus on any composer particularly. There was a lot of George Gershwin, including, naturally, the title song of the production — “My Funny Valentine.” The Canadian-born singer, Mimi Hines — who lives in Las Vegas, and has appeared been at the 5th Avenue in “Pippin,” directed by Armstrong — made her entrance with this great Rodgers and Hart tune: a poignant tribute to love. With her credits in the program dating to a 1958 appearance on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar, Hines has been around. Her experience tells in every phrase. One can just sing “My Funny Valentine” and pronounce the words and be a success. Hines went much further, weaving her way deep into the songs. She appeared more often during the second half, changing costume at every turn, with buckets of sequins sewn into her oufits. She is a good example of how artistry can be enriched with age even as the voice declines. It was not a mistake to have her close the show with a standardbearer of the musical theater, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.”
There was Stephen Sondheim to make bittersweet and urbane comments that he does so well. Most tunes were well-known such as “I’ve Got Rhythm,” “I Get a Kick out of Champagne,” “Devil Moon,” “If Ever I Would I Leave You,” “Miss Otis Regrets” but not all, which added spice to the mix.
The singers should be noted: Shelly Burch, Anne Eisendrath, Nick Garrison, Kirsten Delohr Helland, Kim Huber, Mike McGowan, Brandon O’Neill and Sarah Rudinoff. It would have been nice to have been able to read in the program the names of the tunes and who sang them.
The house was not full. The 5th Avenue, Armstrong said from the stage, would like to do more productions of this sort. There has to be an audience. How many other places can one dip into this songbook?