Stairway to Paradise

NY City Center Encores - May 2007
Review by John Kenrick

Let's save time and rename Broadway "Chenoweth-way." At the very least, we could rename 7th Avenue "Encores-way."

Either of these would be a fitting response to Stairway to Paradise, the magnificent Encores compendium of classic revue songs and skits starring Kristin Chenoweth and a dazzling cast of gifted veterans and newcomers. This gala production is the only major commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Florenz Ziegfeld's first Follies, and what a fitting tribute -- an explosion of talent, taste and humor, wrapped up in more wit than perhaps even Ziegfeld could have managed. For fans of classic musical theatre, this was a lovefest. To a musical theatre historian like yours truly, this was nothing less than heaven on earth.

The formula for Stairway to Paradise is glorious -- material from thirty different Broadway revues produced between 1908 and 1952, the golden age for this sort of entertainment. Original revues are long gone from "the main stem," but this production proves there is much joy to be found in such parades of writing and performing talent. Encores went all out for this special production, bringing in Tony-winning director Jerry Zaks, who whipped up a magical soufflé of fun in only a few days of rehearsal. Rarely has any theatrical event boasted so many legendary names among its composers and wordsmiths, from Victor Herbert and Irving Berlin to Rodgers, Hart, Porter, Comden, Green, Styne, Rome -- and all presented in a fresh, affectionate framework that respected the author's intentions while offering contemporary audiences several truckloads of pleasure.

From the moment the golden voiced J. Mark McVey led the ensemble in a soaring rendition of the rarely heard Kern & Wodehouse gem "The Land Where the Good Songs Go," the Encores audience was in full levitation mode, and by the time the divine Chenoweth finished delivering "Kiss Me Again" with all coloratura glory, we were in orbit. In the highest tradition of the old-school revue, there followed a non-stop cascade of talent, laughter and musical treasure.

Ruthie Henshall left 'em cheering with two killer torch songs, and tap dancer Kendrick Jones literally stopped the show with his sensational take on "Doin' the New Low Down." Capathia Jenkins had several fine moments, most notably Eubie Blake's "My Handy Man Ain't Handy No More." Lovely Jenn Gamatese must have found her joyous song & dance duets with the luscious Shonn Wiley a refreshing break from her current gig in Tarzan, and dancer Michael Gruber kicked up stardust at every turn, most notably performing the Schwartz-Dietz classic "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan," and the glorious Gershwin song that gave this revue its name.

A golden age revue must have solid comic talent, and there were belly laughs galore thanks to the versatile teddy bear Kevin Chamberlin, who balanced the hilarity of the skits with a heartfelt performance of the Depression-era anthem "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" He was ably abetted by the diminutive but endearing Christopher Fitzgerald, who milked every giggle out of "Josephine Please Don't Lean On the Bell" and then offered a heart-tugging "I Left My Heart At the Stage Door Canteen."  When Kristin Chenoweth joined them for a skit involving three sneezing actors stuck onstage with buckets of goldenrod, the result was pandemonium, both on stage and in the howling audience. Another scene spoofing the sub-animal stupidity of celebrity actors was also a hoot -- we rarely get to laugh this way on Broadway any more.

And we rarely get a talent like Kristin Chenoweth. Taking stage in every appearance, nailing laughs with the same stylish certainly that graces her breathtaking high notes, this little lady has become one of the most beloved figures on the Broadway stage today. She gave Stairway the required star power and had a visible blast doing it -- in the sneezing routine, Chenoweth, Chamberlin and Fitzgerald (a worthy firm deserving of more cases!) were clearly having as much fun as the audience, and rightly so. As long as this little Chenoweth lady -- and "Sing Me a Song of Social Significance" was staged to remind us just how compact a fireball she is -- walks the earth, there is hope for the musical theatre.

Guest conductor Rob Berman turned in some ravishing vocal arrangements, and conducted a bevy of new orchestrations by the one and only Jonathan Tunick with a loving hand. Once again, the production team of John Lee Beatty (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes) and Paul Gallo (lights) made a little look like a lot. Tom Morse's sound system did not always maintain a clear balance between the singers and the magnificent Encores orchestra, and in ensemble numbers Warren Carlyle's choreography made the limited stage space look unnecessarily cramped, but these drawbacks did not seriously hamper the proceedings.

Amid all the pleasures of Stairway to Paradise, I found myself profoundly saddened -- not by the cast or the show, which marked the end of one of a triumphant Encores season, but by the realization that these spectacular talents have so few chances to do this sort of material any more. With Broadway now resolutely devolving into a tourist venue and offering theme park entertainment in place of theatre, the few remaining serious fans of the musical theatre must rely almost exclusively on Encores and the smaller but irreplaceable York Theatre for anything like artistic satisfaction. Heaven bless and prosper both of these marvelous institutions, as they keep this unique artistic legacy alive in an era devoted to noise masquerading as music, illiteracy posing as rhyme, and thuggery labeled as "talent."

Now how do we get Mayor "Money Uber Alles" Bloomberg to start running off those "Chenoweth-way" street signs?

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