"HALLELUJAH! Get Happy: The Songs of Harold Arlen" is the latest cabaret collection by the troupe responsible for the recent fine settings of Jacques Brel and Randy Newman/Laura Nyro songs at D.C. Space.
This time out, pianist/producer Roy Barber is working with sax player Chris Patton and three well-matched voices, and the result is the cabaret company's most polished effort yet.
Collaborating with witty lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Yip Harburg and even Truman Capote, Buffalo-born Arlen (his real name was Hyman Arluck) supplied songs for the Cotton Club and was a top Tin Pan Alley tunesmith from the '30s through the '50s, coming as close to blues and jazz as show tunes could get. Most of the songs chosen by Barber are familiar from musicals and movies, and the troupe serves up stirring, straightforward interpretations.
With superior songs and simple settings like these, everyone gets a chance to shine in the solos. Paula Burns displays a wide range, from a gentle "A Sleepin' Bee" to the giddy "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe." Brian Donnelly, who adds an admirable staccato tap counterpoint to "Down With Love," shines in "Come Rain or Come Shine," but lays on a thick lounge lizard schtick for "That Old Black Magic." Brassy belter Ann Johnson gives frankly emotional readings of the blue notes in "When the Sun Comes Out" and "Like a Straw in the Wind."
Pianist Barber uses his own reedy voice well in "Wail of the Reefer Man," and has a smoky, closing-time duet with Patton on "One for My Baby." Closely matched '30s-style harmonies mark "Blues in the Night" and a "Wizard of Oz" medley, and "Over the Rainbow," which has been worked to death by pop singers, sounds fresh again and pleasantly free of histrionics.
Directed by Barber, the evening is intended to resemble a '50s jazz cafe, and it has a loose, casual feel, though the performers' tortured facial expressions on the torchy numbers are often too exaggerated for this intimate setting. Roberta Gasbarre's choreography complements the music nicely, but it is occasionally intrusive -- the shuffling and scuffling interpretive pas de deux during "Stormy Weather" distracts from the song.
HALLELUJAH! GET HAPPY: THE SONGS OF HAROLD ARLEN -- At D.C. Space through April.