A successful Jerome Kern retrospective depends as much on preparation as it does on talent. Kern, the most prolific composer in the history of American musical theater, left an enormous body of work. Reducing his legacy to reasonable representative dimensions isn't easy, but pianist Arthur Siegel and vocalist Sandy Stewart have done their homework well. Their efforts paid handsome dividends at the Wolf Trap Barns last night.
Kern's enduring melodies possess a lovely naturalness, an uncomplicated beauty consistently reflected in Siegel's straightforward accompaniment and Stewart's intimate vocals. Although Stewart approached the lyrics with artful intelligence, she never resorted to using the stiff and mannered phrasing show tunes often inspire. A relaxed and informal program was the result.
The evening began with several of Kern's early interpolations for Broadway shows imported from Europe. Quaintly nostalgic and little more, these tunes barely hinted at the Kern to come. The composer would develop quickly, though, a process Siegel and Stewart illustrated with both charm and enthusiasm, as they moved from the circa 1915 "Princess Theater Medley" (culled from a period in which Kern collaborated with P. G. Wodehouse, among others) to "Show Boat" and beyond.
This modest yet delightful tribute to Kern's genius will be repeated tonight.