Encores! Off-Center Celebrates with a 'Jamboree' at City Center

2016-07-19-1468956951-7350278-Jamboree.jpgSutton Foster and Jonathan Groff in Jamboree! Photo: Paula Lobo

By Sheila Kogan, ZEALnyc Contributing Writer, July 20, 2016

I looked up the word "jamboree" in the dictionary. It says it's a "celebratory gathering, usually with entertainment," which is a good description of what happened at City Center this past Saturday night.

At first I thought Jamboree was the name of a musical I'd never heard of, because the Encores! Off-Center series typically presents concert versions of musicals that have previously been produced off-Broadway, so I'm not sure what the rationale was behind this program. It was an overloaded kind of hodge-podge, but never mind, because it was wonderfully entertaining.

Leading the "celebration" was Sutton Foster--one of those "Broadway Babies" who shines her own light. She has a wonderful voice, a special way with a lyric that conveys multi-layered meaning, excellent diction so you can understand every word she sings, and she can dance. She sang a variety of songs--from touching ("Ring of Keys") to naughty ("Miss Byrd") to wacky comic ("Forget about the Boy"). It was fun to watch Foster and her co-star, Jonathan Groff (recently King George in Hamilton), play off of one another, as she managed to crack him up on several occasions. (It's too bad there's nothing like The Carol Burnett Show on TV anymore, because Foster's versatility and ability to portray any number of characters, would make her a perfect fit in that sketch comedy format.)

The voices of Foster and Groff blended well together and it was a pleasure to hear them sing. They danced together, too. The first piece on the program was an effective recreation of the opening number of A Chorus Line--with dialogue as well as dancing. Foster and Groff also danced the choreography of a glamorous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers number wearing similar evening clothes to the film version that showed above their heads. They danced beautifully, and I think that they would have looked really swell if it hadn't been for the film. Being able to compare them move-by-move didn't show them to best advantage. Sorry, no one does it better than Astaire and Rogers.

Except for A Chorus Line, no other re-creations were performed--only isolated songs from shows. With creative orchestrations using just five instruments and some backup singers, the songs were simply sung--in street clothes, in a spotlight, or perhaps using a chair as a prop. Also included in the program were popular songs. While I don't know why they were chosen (like those written by Beyoncé or Stevie Wonder), they were enjoyable. Each song was "announced" on two screens on either side of the stage. Written like vaudeville-type cards, they told the name of the song and who had written the music and lyrics.

Along with the musical numbers, there were two short documentaries of behind-the-scenes musicians: the orchestrator Danny Troob and the pianist/conductor Linda Twine. Both interviews were interesting, informative, and well executed, but seemed odd choices to be in the middle of a lineup of performances.

There was also a short video of the late Gregory Hines talking about Ayodele Casel, followed by Casel onstage. She tap danced to a recorded monologue, and was extraordinary. Every tap was clear and distinct and the rhythms were all created by the sound of her feet. After she left the stage, the audience refused to stop applauding until she returned for a second bow, the only performer during the evening who received that honor. She really deserves more general attention.

But wait folks, there was even more. Several newcomers, new voices in musical theater, performed songs that they had written. Each one was very different from the others, individual and worthy. The brothers Patrick and Daniel Lazour sang in a harmony that sounded like an updated Simon and Garfunkel. Ben Wexler sang about the social advantage of wearing a dress in Washington Square Park. Julian Hornik touchingly sang his "A Cabin in Laguna." Shaina Taub's emotional song "When" addressed the too-current distress over violence in today's world (with accompanying video). And César Alvarez sang his "Every Egg Broke," a comic song with a fanciful, and very funny, perspective. Marla Louissant didn't write her song, but belted out Eisa Davis's "Blank Canvas." I'm sure you will hear about these talents in the near future. Besides singing individually, the songwriter/singers also provided backup vocals for the evening.

Then someone appeared to have arrived late and was shown to his seat by an usherette with a flashlight. She turned out to be Carol Brannigan, City Center's House Manager, who is leaving the New York area. She climbed onto the stage and proceeded to sing, with strong professionalism and believability, a Jerry Herman song about being an usher. By the way, various members of the City Center staff were featured in other numbers as well.

Michael Mayer directed, and it's to his credit that all the elements worked so well together. All 26 musical numbers (yes, 26!) were overseen by Jeanine Tesori, Encores! Off-Center Artistic Director, as well as this production's Music Director, playing the keyboard onstage and conducting the five-member ensemble. (FYI, she won last year's Tony Award for Best Original Score, writing the music to Lisa Kron's lyrics for Fun Home.) During the curtain calls, Sutton Foster rushed out to make sure that Tesori was acknowledged, as she steps down as Artistic Director of Encores! Off-Center at the conclusion of this summer's season.

It continues to amaze me how the City Center's Encores! series manages to be so smooth and professional with just a few days' worth of rehearsal time. Perhaps the number of songs might have been edited down or some central theme been more clearly defined, but no matter. This "jamboree" was a wonderful display of talent and was very entertaining.

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Encores! Off-Center Jamboree! was performed on July 16, 2016 at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan. Directed by Michael Mayer; musical director, Jeanine Tesori; choreography, Noah Racey; scenic design by Donale Werle; costume design by Clint Ramos; lighting design by Mark Barton; sound design by Leon Rothenberg; musical supervision by Chris Fenwick; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; vocal arrangements by AnnMarie Milazzo, with Jeanine Tesori, John Clancy and Michael Rafter; production stage manager, Lisa Iacucci. Produced by New York City Center, Arlene Shuler, President & CEO. Orchestra: piano, Jeanine Tesori; organ, Annastasia Victory; bass, George Farmer; drums, Sean McDaniel; guitar, Nate Brown. Cast: Sutton Foster and Jonathan Groff, with César Alvarez, Darren Biggart, Holly Ann Butler, Ayodele Casel, Julian Hornick, Patrick Lazour, Daniel Lazour, Marla Louissaint, Arri Lawton Simon, Shaina Taub, Ben Wexler, Karley Willocks, and members of the City Center Staff.

Sheila Kogan is a Contributing Writer for ZEALnyc and writes frequently on theater, dance and other cultural events.

Read about Encores! Off-Center's last production: 'Runaways' Still Packs a Punch Nearly Forty Years Later.

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