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Theatre in Review: Hoagy Carmichael's Stardust Road (York Theatre at Theatre at St. Jean's)

Cory Lingner. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Hoagy Carmichael wrote "Heart and Soul?" Who knew? That's one of the revelations of this fast-paced revue celebrating the great American composer. Another surprise is that the lyrics to everyone's favorite two-finger piano piece are by none other than Frank Loesser, long before he stormed Broadway. Much of the time, the show provides the often-delightful shock of the unfamiliar: Conceived by Susan H. Schulman, Michael Lichtefeld, and Lawrence Yurman, with an assist from Carmichael's son, Hoagy Bix, it is a heaping selection of songs, not just the expected hits, that demonstrates the composer's staying power through several decades of pop music.

There are signs that the creators had something more ambitious in mind -- the actors are assigned character names but not characters -- but note that nobody is credited with a book. Instead, it unfolds across four locations and decades, the latter of which constitute the heyday of the American songbook. It begins in an Indiana roadhouse -- Carmichael was a native of that state -- apparently in the 1920s, then shifts to Harlem nightclub in the Thirties, followed by a USO canteen in wartime and a swanky Hollywood boƮte in the postwar era before returning to the roadhouse for a brief coda. According to the script, we are following the character of Max, affably played by Dion Simmons Grier, but that information remains on a strictly need-to-know basis, a classification that doesn't include the audience.

And not until about a quarter of the way in, when certain individual performances ignite, does the show find its groove. It first picks up steam at the end of the first sequence, when Sara Esty's clarion voice tears into the torchy "Just a Little Shade on the Blue Side" (lyric by Carmichael and Harold Adamson). From here on, the gifted Cory Lingner takes the place apart, singing and high-stepping through a little something called "The Rhumba Jump," by way of showing Carmichael's skill with novelty numbers. This is followed by a sassy "Ooh! What You Said," delivered by Danielle Herbert, the company's vivacious, big-eyed flirt, followed by a charming male quartet in "Don't Care for the Heck of It," (All three numbers are graced by lyricist Johnny Mercer's wit.) The scene's high point may be Kayla Jenerson's iridescent "The Nearness of You," which gets full value out of Ned Washington's ruminative lyrics.

A sense of changing time sets in, touchingly, during the USO sequences, especially in a suite of songs for homesick soldiers: "Memphis in June" (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, with a nice vocal by Markcus Blair), "Can't Get Indiana Off My Mind" (lyrics by Robert DeLeon, sung, yearningly, by Lingner), and "Georgia on My Mind (lyrics by Stuart Gorrell, powerfully rendered by Grier). "A World of No Goodbyes" (lyrics by Ray Gilbert) is movingly staged as a series of reunions between servicemen and sweethearts even as one unlucky trooper is laid to rest.

The mood shifts toward ebullience in the Hollywood sequence, featuring an exhilarating tap by Lingner set to "Cosmics" a wordless composition by Carmichael, and a lovely ballroom dance with Lingner and Esty to "How Little We Know," another Mercer classic. Mike Schwitter sings "I Get Along with You Very Well," poignantly arguing himself to a standstill over a lost love. (The lyrics are by Carmichael, based on a poem by JB. Thompson.) The twin highlights, however, are Esty's "Skylark" (to my mind, Carmichael's most gorgeous melody, combined with Mercer's soaring lyrics) and Jenerson's "Stardust" (an all-time classic, set to Mitchell Parish's lyrics), which ultimately come together in a stunning piece of counterpoint.

Still, the clock can't be stopped; a sizzling "Heart and Soul," led by Herbert with the assistance of Lingner and Blair, hints at the nascent rock-and-roll era that would lead to Carmichael's late-career eclipse. Yes, Ray Charles would make "Georgia on My Mind" a hit all over again, Bette Midler would record a heart-stirring "Skylark," and even George Harrison would cover a couple of his numbers. But when it's over, it's over, and the composer spent his later years collecting royalty checks, sadly no longer relevant.

Schulman's direction is efficient throughout and Lichtefeld's choreography is especially lively, allowing him a rare chance to indulge in pure pizzazz. The design package is solid enough, including James Morgan and Vincent Gunn's set, Alex Allison's costumes, Jason Kantrowitz's colorful lighting, Brad Peterson's projections, and Julian Evans' sound.

Still, you probably have to bring your own goodwill to this production; it is, I think, unlikely to grab anyone who isn't already a fan of Carmichael and his many collaborators. But those fans are likely to have a mighty good time exploring the many enjoyable stopping points on this Stardust Road. --David Barbour

(2 December 2022)

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