By Linda Amiel Burns
An all-star cast was recruited for the second concert of this season in the Lyrics & Lyricists Series at the 92nd Street Y entitled “Fred & Ginger in so Many Words: The Astaire-Rogers Songbook.”
Deborah Grace Winer, the Artistic Director, served as writer, host and narrator. Her lively presentation, giving interesting information about the subjects and the music, added to this sparkling evening of song. The cast consisted of Debby Boone, David Elder, James Naughton, Billy Stritch and Karen Ziemba – all major talents who delighted us with their fine vocal interpretations. John Oddo was the Musical Director and Arranger, along with Mark Waldrop and Caitlin Carter as co-stage directors. The remarkable band on the stage had Aaron Heick on reeds, Irving Grossman, trumpet, David Finck, bass, Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar and James Saporito on drums.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers not only changed the way dancing was viewed on the screen, but their films (and subsequent Astaires movies) featured scores by America’s most lionized composers and lyricists, among them, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Alan Jay Lerner, Burton Lane (his widow Lynn Lane was in attendance), Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. They made 10 films together and most had essentially the same plot, but it didn’t matter as their remarkable screen chemistry and great musical scores carried the films.
The entire cast sang the opening number, “Let Yourself Go” by Irving Berlin from Follow The Fleet (1926). From then on, the audience let themselves go and had a wonderful time hearing songs with extraordinary lyrics and music that are embedded in our every day consciousness. Karen Ziema sang, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)” from Top Hat followed by a charming “I Won’t Dance” from Debby Boone. Jim Naughton sang a fun rendition of “They All Laughed” (the Gershwins) and Billy Stritch the number from Royal Wedding (1951) that had Fred dancing on the ceiling “You’re All The World To Me.”
Debby and Billy battled in that classic, “A Fine Romance” (Swingtime – 1936) with a romantic duet and dancing by Karen & David of “It Only Happens When I Dance With you” (Berlin – Easter Parade 1948). There was one extraordinary performance after another and the first act ended with the audience joining the cast in “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as the lyrics were shown on a screen.
Act II began with a delightful duet of “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” with Billy & Jim. A highlight of the show was a sensational duet/dance number with Karen & David of “(I Ain’t Hep To That Step But I’ll) Dig It” (Mercer/lyrics, Borne/ music from Second Chorus (1940). Karen & Jim battled sweetly in the standard “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” –Gershwins (Shall We Dance – 1937). The evening was jam-packed with gems, one after another that pleased the audience. The concert ended with each cast member singing a medley of dance songs, “Carioca”, “The Continental”, “Change Partners”, “Dream Dancing”, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and finally ending with everyone singing “Cheek to Cheek”.
This tribute to the music of Astaire and Rogers brought us back to a time of great elegance. You can never watch one of their films without feeling happy and be swept away by their dance routines, and the great songs that were written for them. I loved every minute of the evening and joined the audience as they rose to their feet to give the cast and band a well-deserved standing ovation!