Jerome Kern (1885-1945) was the creator of the stylish, melodious and musically advanced show tune that was to influence Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and the rest of the half-dozen or so great musical-comedy composers who dominated the Broadway musical stage well into the second half of the century. But lovely as his songs are, they make for a rather bland musical evening in the staged concert, "Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood," a successful London show last year, that came to the Ritz last night.
And while it really doesn't matter, the title is misleading. More than half of the 40 songs included were originally composed for the Broadway stage, though they all eventually did turn up in movies.
The concept is simple. David Kernan, who was in "Side by Side by Sondheim" several seasons back, has assembled four talented singers - three of them women - and put them to work, in fancy costumes and slick staging, on numbers that are almost all gems. What's missing, however, is the wide-ranging interest and humor to be found in, say, a Sondheim or Porter evening.
The lyricists, of which the main one is Oscar Hammerstein 2d, were all gifted collaborators. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, such as "Bojangles of Harlem" and "The Last Time I Saw Paris," they're sentimental excursions that, taken in a lump, begin to sound pretty much alike in spite of Kern's masterly and versatile use of melody.
As if to compenstate for this, the vocal lines are frequently jazzed up and twisted a bit, and even two numbers with similar messages - "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" - are offered simultaneously, the two singers interweaving the lyrics and music.
It is only natural, therefore, that the most authentic voice heard, and the most telling one, belongs to a veteran named Elisabeth Welch. The elegant Welch, whom I'm told is 77, is heard to beautiful effect in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Yesterdays" and an inspired rendition of "Why Was I Born?"
The others are all engaging enough, heaven knows. The tall and stunning Liz Robertson growls her way through "I'll Be Hard to Handle," skips lightly through "I Won't Dance," and joins Welch and Scott Holmes in that masterpiece "Bojangles of Harlem," best remembered from Fred Astaire's inventive dance routine.
For his part, Holmes is winning and surprisingly effective in, among other items, a song I never cared much for, "The Folks Who Live on the Hill." Elaine Delmar, the most vivacious of the four, breezes her way through "I'm Old Fashioned" and the unusually constructed "Remind Me" with a verve marred only slightly by grating tones when she lets her voice out.
The women have been dressed in strikingly designed but hideously red gowns in the first half, giving way to more muted wear for the second half. Holmes sticks pretty much to tuxedo with some change in the second half, which concludes with the ensemble singing four Kern evergreens and closing with the upbeat "Make Way for Tomorrow."
A smoothly accomplished combo, most of it in the wings, is presided over at the piano by the excellent Peter Howard. All in all, a full-scale revival of "Show Boat," "The Cat and the Fiddle" or "Music in the Air" would have served the master better than this, at best, agreeable potpourri.
Of course, Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, which officially started its Broadway journey at the Ritz Theater last night, is unabashedly a cabaret style entertainment. But wondrously so.
It might, in a mood of pettiness, be regarded as merely a cabaret in search of a night club, perhaps.
The trappings are all there. Four singers, five musicians, a simple but stylish setting by Colin Pigott, simple but stylish costumes by Christine Robinson and dramatic and expansive lighting by Ken Billington - yes, if you dare call it so, it must be a cabaret act.
A cabaret act with a theme - the songs that Jerome Kern wrote in the '30s and '40s that so much enriched and enlivened first Hollywood and then the world.
Originally produced in London last year, as London's special tribute to Kern's centenary, it was given a showcase showing in the tiny Donmar Theater.
It was conceived and staged, there and here, by David Kernan - who had earlier masterminded Side by Side by Sondheim, the show from which to some extent it derives. And its continuity has been written by Dick Vosburgh.
What gives this cabaret vivid validity on the Broadway stage is Kern's gorgeous music - uninterrupted by a book and, for the most part, unadulterated by cheap or chic orchestrations - and the four singers.
The remarkable thing about Kern is that he wrote so much with such apparent ease. Rather like Mozart's, Kern's melodies always sound as though the composer simply discovered them somewhere in the air. They have the mark of something found rather than something fashioned.
Also one - at least I do - so easily forgets how many wonderful tunes Kern left to us, tunes that have virtually merged into our communal consciousness, so that they have almost reached the status of folk melodies.
Songs like Lovely to Look At, or The Way You Look Tonight, seem as familiar as Greensleeves, and, unfairly I suppose, you scarcely associate them with Kern.
Indeed it takes a show like this - a long roller-coaster of hits - to make one realize how much Kern produced. And this show deliberately limits itself to Hollywood and Hollywood adaptations.
Kernan's selction of the songs is as deft as his unobtrusive and unfussy staging, which stresses theatricality but never at the cost of intimacy.
The cast, with one exception, is the same as in London. All three of the women - Elaine Delmar, Liz Robertson and Elisabeth Welch - are repeating their original assignments, but Kernan himself has been replaced by a young American, Scott Holmes.
It is a handsomely balanced cast. For me the standout is Elisabeth Welch, who, although a New Yorker of grandly inscrutable age, has been based in London for 53 years. Indeed I presume this is her Broadway debut!
In her adopted England she has just about as big a reputation as Ella Fitzgerald, who is some years her junior, and her charm and style in this Kern bouquet should help explain this to her countrymen.
Elaine Delmar and Liz Robertson are as English as Bow Bells, and both in their different ways are delightful.
Delmar's lustrous voice and jazz phrasing is surely on the verge of international acclaim, and Robertson's perkily Julie Andrews brightness makes her an ideal counterweight.
Completing the quartet, Holmes is charming, strongvoiced, personable and agreeably uncute as the solitary swain to such diverse shepherdesses.
Dramatically the show is undemanding, to say the most, but musically and stylistically it is a gem. Think of it - an evening of Kern in the best of company.
Just when you fear that you might gag on all the false cheer being propagated by 'Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood,' the bland English cabaret show at Broadway's Ritz Theater, along comes a performer (one of four) whose authenticity cuts right through the show-biz cheesiness. Her name is Elisabeth Welch, and she's a small woman with apple round cheeks, silverish hair, large mischievous eyebrows and a posture that curls her body into a perptual, lightly amused shrug. Once you hear her light soprano make the most of familiar Kern songs, 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' into something dramatic and new, you're likely to start riffling through the Playbill trying to find out where she's been all these years.
As the program and other sources reveal, Miss Welch was born in New York and appeared in two Depression-era Cole Porter musicals, 'The New Yorkers' and 'Nymph Errant,' the latter of which landed her in London in 1933. Not long after that she recorded a forgotten Kern song with Paul Robeson at the Abbey Road recording studios. Since then she has enjoyed an expatriate's film and stage career abroad - with at least one brief return (in the 1980 revue 'Black Broadway') to New York. If anything positive is to come out of 'Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood,' we must write letters to our Congressmen demanding that Miss Welch be detained in the United States forthwith, as a national resource too rare and precious for export.
There are roughly 40 numbers in this show, and how on wishes that Miss Welch, whose elegant phrasing suggests a second coming of Mabel Mercer, sang at least 20 of them. Her actual list of assignments is much shorter, but it does include such delights as 'She Didn't Say Yes' and 'Why Was I Born?'(dedicated to Helen Morgan), as well as snatches of 'I Won't Dance' and 'I've Told Every Little Star.' The rest of the time this singer sits on a stool in the shadows, her face exuding a sweet, meditative glow, as if she were imagining she were somewhere else. We come to know how she feels.
Conceived and directed by David Kernan, who also collaborated on the impossibly arch 'Side by Side by Sondheim,' this revue was originally seen at the West End's tiny Warehouse Theater. It's a classic reminder that the English have about as much of a natural instinct for American musical theater as the Actors Studio does for Restoration comedy. While Kern was, in Alec Wilder's definitive estimation, our theater's most characteristic creator of 'the pure, uncontrived melodic line,' his songs don't just sing themselves. The attractive performers surrounding Miss Welch - Liz Robertson and Elaine Delmar, who are English, and the American Scott Holmes - have good voices but no compelling point of view on their material.
While there are a few happy exceptions to the generally dull drift - especially when the jazzy Miss Delmar is having fun with the Dorothy Fields lyrics to 'Pick Yourself Up' and 'A Fine Romance' - the Kern standards (largely but not exclusively from his Hollywood years, 1934-45) usually pass by without leaving much emotional or musical decisions are simply perverse. Miss Robertson and Miss Delmar belt out 'Bill' and 'Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man' in counterpoint, obliterating both song. 'Ol' Man River' has been arranged as an upbeat trio weirdly reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary's old 'Puff, the Magic Dragon.' Mr. Holmes, excessively mindful of the World War II circumstances prompting Oscar Hammerstein's Lyric for 'The Last Time I Saw Paris,' imbues the number with a tragic demeanor that even the crooner in Woody Allen's 'Broadway Danny Rose' might find a bit sweaty.
The arrangements, played by a small on-stage band, don't help; they're suitable for a cocktail-hour combo at a convention hotel. The sketchy narration, by Dick Vosburgh ('A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine'), is unsophisticated, disorganized and arbitrary. Among other insights, we learn that Kern's 'output for both Broadway and Hollywood was phenomenal' and the 'Show Boat' literally changed the face of the American musical theater.' For reasons that aren't clear, we're told more about Kern's post-stroke hospitalization than about his views on the musical theater, whose face he changed, literally or not, more than once.
The set (flats depicting a vague urban skyline), monochromatic costumes and lighting are impoverished (Easily the production's most spectacular effect is the addition of cloud projections for 'Till the Clouds Roll By.') Mr. Kernan, whose inability to resist a cliche is announced by the revue's choice of opening song ('The Song Is You'), has directed his performers to conclude most of their numbers with bared teeth and raised arms. Far from recalling Kern's Hollywood or Broadway, such staging takes us back only to 'Your Hit Parade,' It's the ineffable style of Miss Welch alone that gives 'Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood' its franchise on a romantic musical past.