Songs and stories of musicals from the Great Depression and WWII in the return of ‘Broadway by the Season’ at NYC’s Merkin Hall

After a successful 2023 debut of Broadway by the Season in its new home at Kaufman Music Center’s Merkin Hall, host, director, writer, and producer Scott Siegel, joined by The Ross Patterson Little Big Band, The Broadway by the Season Dance Troupe, and a roster of stars from the New York stage, returned for the first of three Spring concerts in the second year of the popular series (following 21 seasons of its predecessor Broadway by the Year), taking audiences on an entertaining and informative musical journey through a selection of eleven shows and nineteen songs from The Great Depression and World War II.

Danny Gardner. Photo by Ray Costello.

Act I opened with Broadway song-and-dance man Danny Gardner, the BBTS resident choreographer, performing the upbeat and optimistic “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” from George White’s Scandals of 1931, singing, tapping, and whistling along to this cheery response to the Depression, in a period-style seersucker suit, bow tie, and straw hat, which he used to feign the titular bowl. Siegel then began his well-researched commentary on the number (it has endured as a standard largely because of the theme of resilience amidst a devastating financial crisis), the year (construction of the Empire State Building was completed, ground was broken on Rockefeller Center, and both Alka Seltzer and Clairol hair coloring were introduced), and our country (more people left the US than emigrated here in 1931), setting the stage for the retrospective revue.

Gardner also performed a balletic slow dance in classic tails with Kelly Sheehan (both entering from the aisles and keeping apart on opposite sides of the stage) to Sophie Rapeijko’s soaring romantic vocal on “Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon, and he closed the first act with a completely different attitude in the song “Manhattan Madness” from Face the Music, a satire on politics, corruption, and show biz, looking wildly disheveled and acting crazed in keeping with the lyrics and the period of great upheaval, and led away by two men who restrain him in a straitjacket.

Danny Gardner. Photo by Ray Costello.

Supremely masterful performances – in a show and a company comprised of nothing but standouts – were delivered by Broadway stars Douglas Ladnier and Jenny Lee Stern, who brought down the house each time they took the stage. His deep resonant voice, flawless breath control, and long notes impressed on the slow tempo “Who Cares?” from the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (the upbeat titular anthem of which was sung earlier by Rapeijko), proclaiming that love is all that matters and making us believe it, and on “The Thrill Is Gone,” another American standard from George White’s Scandals of 1931, which he began while seated on a stool, then stood and moved around the stage, capturing the poignancy and pain of the song, and prompting Siegel to comment, “The thrill isn’t gone at all!” Most definitely not, when Ladnier is bringing it.

Douglas Ladnier and The Ross Patterson Little Big Band. Photo by Ray Costello.

The irrepressible Stern, in costume, hair, and make-up that evoked Betty Boop (the animated sex symbol of the Depression era and reminder of the more carefree flappers of the Jazz Age), completely embraced the characters in her show-stealing numbers with her flirtatious stage presence, moves to the rhythm of the music, and vocals that ranged from cute and coquettish on “You Made Me Love You” (performed without a mic) to despondent in her partly sung, partly spoken performance of “Cigarettes, Cigars!,” both from Ziegfeld Follies of 1931, to her powerhouse delivery, sexual innuendo, and double-entendres in “Torch Song” from Face the Music.

Jenny Lee Stern. Photo by Ray Costello.

In between was Willie Demyan, in his BBTS and Merkin Hall debut, singing Jerome Kern’s funny “She Didn’t Say Yes” from Cat and the Fiddle, bringing his great voice and engaging manner to the song, relaying the lyrics with telling facial expressions and gestures directed right at the audience, and making us feel a part of the number.

Act II began eleven years later, as Siegel joked, during the 1942-43 season and the Second World War – a year that saw the development of the atom bomb, the film Casablanca, based on the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s, which never made it to Broadway, and the birth of Barbra Streisand, who did – with three favorites from Oklahoma!, a blockbuster that played an unprecedented 2212 performances, garnered Oscar and Hammerstein a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1993, earned them a Special Tony Award for the 50th anniversary of the musical. Ladnier brought his flawless voice and profound emotion to an unplugged rendition, with an a cappella opening, of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,” and oh, what a beautiful performance!

Douglas Ladnier. Photo by Ray Costello.

Then Demyan returned with a sweet, gentle, bouncy, and amiable “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” replete with dreamy gazes and expressive arm gestures, pointing into the distance at the places he’s envisioning in the lyrics, and later for a duet with Rapeijko on “People Will Say We’re in Love,” a stand-alone top 40 hit from the show, with the pair alternately giving each other a list of “don’ts,” conveying their feelings with readily legible reactions to one another, and by the end, joining hands, smiling, and harmonizing.

Willie Demyan and Sophie Rapeijko. Photo by Ray Costello.

Two of the musicals highlighted in the second act, with two chosen numbers from each, were specifically about the war, and all featured appearances by The Broadway by the Season Dance Troupe (Bryan Hunt, Michael Schimmele, Craig Waletzko, Jack Wunsch, and Kelly Sheehan). Sheehan reunited with Gardner for “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” from Irving Berlin’s This Is the Army, to tell the story in song and dance about a lonely soldier longing for the waitress he met there. Gardner also led the male members of the troupe in a laugh-out-loud rendition of the show’s comical “Oh, How I Hate to Get up in the Morning,” playing the soldiers’ wake-up song “Reveille” on the trumpet, singing, and getting whacked by the others doing their morning calisthenics.

Danny Gardner and The Broadway by the Season Dance Troupe. Photo by Ray Costello.

And Broadway’s fabulous Lisa Howard took the lead on the lively title song from Cole Porter’s Something for the Boys and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” with the guys from The BBTS Dance Troupe again playing the soldiers and interacting with her. Siegel also included a number that he said he was sorry to have left out of the previous Broadway by the Season celebrating 1941-42, giving audiences another opportunity to hear Howard’s outstanding vocals and period-perfect stylings on “My Ship” from Lady in the Dark.  

Through it all, The Ross Patterson Little Big Band (with Eric Halvorson on drums, Adam Armstrong on bass, and musical director Ross Patterson on piano) provided the consummately authentic accompaniment to the songs of the past, as they always do (Siegel noted that he and Patterson have worked together for 25 years, leading the pianist to stand up while holding his back and laughably hobbling to take a bow).

Lisa Howard and The Broadway by the Season Dance Troupe. Photo by Ray Costello.

The full company took the stage for the finale, “The House I Live In,” from the patriotic revue Let Freedom Sing, a show that ran for only eight performances, but was picked up for a 1945 short film with Frank Sinatra, with a song that contains the sentiment of what we should all strive to become and the famous line, “That’s America to me.” Each member of the terrific cast had a solo, then passed the mic onto the next, concluding with all six singing together and feeling it.

Broadway by the Season is more than a sensational concert; it’s a lesson in theater history and an embodiment of the stories, characters, and emotions from the featured musicals and their songs, delivered by a stellar cast, band, dance troupe, and host. If you missed this one, be sure to catch the next two Monday installments on April 29 and June 17, revisiting seasons from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, with a lineup that will include Kenita Miller and Tom Wopat.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

The cast. Photo by Ray Costello.

Broadway by the Season played on Monday, March 25, 2024, 7:30 pm, at Kaufman Music Center, Merkin Hall, 129 West 67th Street, NYC. For tickets to upcoming shows on Monday, April 29, and Monday, June 17 (priced at $75-90, plus fees), call (212) 501-3330, or go online. For series subscriptions, contact Scott Siegel at [email protected].



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