Matthew Reddin

Skylight revives a fun, sometimes-clunky “Gershwin and Friends”

By - Jan 30th, 2012 03:48 pm
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Cynthia Cobb and Parrish Collier return to the Skylight for the second run of “Gershwin and Friends.” Photo credit Mark Frohna.

Gershwin and Friends, which returned to the Skylight for a repeat engagement this weekend, hinges on a single narrative conceit: two caterers (Cynthia Cobb and Parrish Collier) at first sing Gershwin songs behind-the-scenes at the composer’s birthday party. Then they head out for a night in Harlem to the tunes of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen.

The conceit trips up the play in the first act, and sends its structural integrity crashing to the ground. Still, Act 1 has its charms. Cobb, Collier and pianist/performer Paul Helm are a polished, vibrant team. They make their voices and performances resonate with each other, and each can take command when solos come their way.

While the revue’s opening songs seemed a bit thin, Cobb and Collier recovered quickly. They found their stride in “I’ll Build A Stairway to Paradise” (Collier), “Someone To Watch Over Me” (Cobb) and the half-dozen Porgy and Bess songs near the end of the act. The aria “Summertime” may have been Cobb’s best song of the night; she hit every high note with a powerful, spine-tingling quiver.

But the songs sit uncomfortably in the framework of Gershwin and Friends. The loose narrative made for a good line here and there, as when Helm remarks on the absurdity of the Gershwins hiring him to play piano when everyone knew that George himself would take over the ivories. But mostly, it makes for contrived, neon arrows pointing toward the next songs.

Paul Helm, Parrish Collier and Cynthia Cobb. Mark Frohna photo for the Skylight.

But the rapid pace and plentiful music — the first act alone packs in 20 songs — make the pain fleeting in Act 1. It disappears in Act 2.

The very conceit that caused the Act 1 problems redeems Act 2. The Harlem night out idea is so open-ended that it requires no further explanation, exposition or justification.

That doesn’t mean the story’s over. The set list for the second act may start with just singing and dancing for its own sake, but it segues into a darker narrative. As they enter the blues catalog, Cobb and Collier drift apart. But then some optimistic Harold Arlen songs draw them back together.

This narrative arc brings emotional heft to their songs, which the Gershwin songs lacked in Act 1. The result is a string of powerful solos that play on your heartstrings. Cobb gets a sassy “Ain’t Misbehavin’” (she goes so far as to start sit on the laps of a few patrons) and a “Stormy Weather” that put the  audience on the edge of its seats waiting for the thunderstorm to break. Collier gets a truly gleeful entrance with “Drop Me Off in Harlem” and a wrenching rendition of “Sophisticated Lady” that serves as a forceful counterpoint to Cobb’s “Solitude.”

But no matter how good Cobb, Collier and Helm are, the sing-along tacked on at the end of the show reminds us who the true stars of the revue are: George Gershwin, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen and the songs that made them famous.

The Skylight Music Theatre’s Gershwin and Friends, replacing the postponed Edith Piaf Onstage, runs through Feb. 12 at the Broadway Theatre Center. Tickets are $22.50 to $65.50 and can be purchased at (414) 291-7800 or their online box office.

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