"Starting Here, Starting Now" is so New York you feel you'll have to take a plane to get home to Washington. This brightly diverting little revenue opened Saturday night in Arena Stage's Old Vat Room and its stay will be all too brief, through Dec. 18.
By "New york" I mean not the sodden, dank place much of it has become but crisp, bright, empyrean, legendary Gotham. Expertly delivered by a highly professional cast of three, with piano and bass backing, the parade of songs suggest the early revue style of Noel Coward, with the left hand of Cole Porter accenting rhythm.
The creators are composer David Shire and lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., who collaboration began at Yale with a musicalized "Cyrano de Bergerac" and proceeded to the dismal record of four flop musicals, "The Sap of Life," "how Do You Do, I Love You?," "Graham Crackers" and "Love Match." For the most part, these little-known gems stem from those flops, though Barbra Streisand's inclusion of the title song in her "people" album did give the team longer exposure.
Of those four I saw only "How Do You do, I Love You?," a satire on computer dating which starred Phyllis Newman at Shady Grove. It is clear that a basic reason why Shire and Maltby aren't known as the Rodgers and Hart/Hammerstein of the '70s is "book" troubles. Just hearing that "Love Match" was about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gave me the shakes. It's striking how many songs are forgotten because they were introduced in feeble books.
Removed from the original contexts, these songs are rooted in character, the aware who spring to Manhattan from all over, their misguided fancy sparked by glamor flicks. Surprisingly, the songs alone create sharp personalities.
Usually the characters gnaw at themselves in a range of frustrations, but wind up with the yeasty pride of self-acceptance. Loni Ackerman's chant about a girl who can't lick The Sunday Times crossword puzzle becomes at least 100,000 Sunday morning lives. Margery Cohen's acidulous Bloomingdale's cosmetics salesperson is a virtual playlet about girls from Brooklyn to the Bronx. When Walter Bobbie sings "I Don't Remember Christmas," that ballad becomes all who insist they have forgotten a bathrobe hanging behind a door and Springtime meetings. And for a mini-chorus line without plot, there's "One Step," with canes and top hats, all deftly stage-managed.
The three performers, dark-haired and dressed mostly in black, are exceptionally assured and individual, Cohen's frizzy hair and Estelle Winwood's eyes a contrast to Ackerman's cool lass with gamine overtones. The girls were in the Off-Broadway original and when George lee Andrews left for rehearsals of the musicalized "Twentieth Century," producer J.B. Freyberg was lucky to find Bobbie to fill Andrews' slot.
A CU theater graduate student, Bobbie made his bow at Olney, was in the original "Grease" and last summer played in the Kennedy Center's Musical Theater Lab Arthur Miller, "Up From Paradise." He's got a fine, well-trained voice, an attractive, expressive face and shares with his colleagues tip-top diction. Nor are mikes in use in the Old Vat, where 160 people sit at small round tables to quaff beer and light wines. (No Smoking!)
If you've been missing New York's fabled, spunky spirit, there's a delicious slice of it in the Kreeger Theater's basement starting now but ending all too soon.