Back From Broadway: A Musical Experience
by Laura Hitchcock
James Barbour and Hershey Felder have been there-done that and they've brought back a few of their favorite things, plus samples of Felder's piece in progress, Noah, that may star Barbour and become one of those musicals they love.
The two met at The Tiffany Theatre where their show is debuting prior to a national tour. Barbour was doing The Gift and Felder was doing his one-man show George Gershwin Alone, which he took on to Broadway. Barbour's Broadway credits include Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre; The Beast in Beauty and the Beast, which he also did here at The Shubert; and Billy Bigelow in Carousel.
Directed by Joel Zwick with a sure ear for the effectiveness of understatement and surprise, the production opens with Felder delicately tracing out the opening notes of a Gershwin song. It segues into a syncopated rendition of "Swanee", the Al Jolson favorite that was Gershwin's first hit. The show ends on a whisper, too, the last note of a duet from Noah in which Felder demonstrates he hasn't overlooked the lyrical savvy of Gershwin's brother and lyricist, Ira Gershwin.
Felder and Barbour wrote the connecting material, best described as professional anecdotes, interspersed with appropriate music. Barbour recounts a New Jersey childhood in which his first appearance at age 14, singing "On The Street Where You Lived", met with catcalls from his fellow students. He stuck it out, because he knew If I didn't, "I could never look at myself in the mirror again. " Similar disheartening experiences included a 12-hour wait for an audition, only to hear the man just before him sing the number he had chosen. Barbour goes ahead and does it anyway, fortunately for us, as it's the unforgettable "Molasses to Rum to Slaves" from 1776. His final disaster story comes after opening night of his big Broadway break, Carousel. at City Center when, on ascending the stairway to Paradise, he falls and breaks an ankle, not a leg, the traditional Broadway recipe for disaster.
Barbour is a fine actor and a unique pleasure to listen to. He never pushes and the big notes of his beautiful voice never waver or strain. He knows when to whisper and when to build.
Felder provides comic relief in the musical numbers he sings, such as" Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, and he's a sensitive actor but his forte is that piano. An anecdote about his strict childhood piano teacher provides an entrée into an impeccable rendition of Chopin's "Polonaise" and he memorializes the death of his mother, at age 35, by playing her favorite Chopin sonata "Farewell".
Barbour also tributizes his father, the inspiration for his Billy in Carousel, in a touching intro to a gripping version of "My Boy Bill." He opens his share of the show with "If I Loved You", another ballad from Carousel, beginning so softly you can almost hear the song breathing.
Some of the connecting monologues could be trimmed but Barbour and Felder are sure to carve out a welcome for themselves wherever they play and for as long as they'll stay.
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