Quality Hill Playhouse opens its 21st season with the cabaret revue “Tin Pan Alley,” a fresh and surprisingly fun look at the first chapter of the American songbook.
That’s when the music publishing business was centered in a stretch of 28th Street in New York City known as “Tin Pan Alley,” perhaps due to the din created by “song-pluggers” as they played and sang new compositions to sell sheet music.
Producing artistic director J. Kent Barnhart, who serves as emcee, pianist and vocalist, shares his extensive knowledge of American standards in commentary between song sets. Don’t expect some dry pedantic explanation; only Barnhart’s wit is dry.
He’s joined onstage by vocalists Christina Burton, Tim Noland and Stacey Stofferahn. Ken Remmert on drums and Brian Wilson on bass provide the perfect accompaniment, adding to the jazzy/bluesy feel of many of the songs. Watch for their breakout solos, including George Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm.”
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Ragtime, one of the influences on American music around the turn of the last century, gets its due with Barnhart playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” the archetypal ragtime song composed by Missouri’s own Scott Joplin.
Stofferahn’s classical soprano voice is a perfect fit for “After the Ball,” a pre-radio hit that sold more than a million copies of sheet music in the 1890s. Although the chorus may be familiar, be sure to listen to the verses that tell the melodramatic story.
Burton, an expert with torch songs, will break your heart with Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.” Although the memorable showstoppers tend to focus on heartbreak, Barnhart balances the mood with upbeat songs such as the novelty tune “Everybody’s Doing It Now” and the energetic “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Noland and Stofferahn join together for a lovely duet of Berlin’s “Always,” written as a wedding gift for his wife.
Burton channels the blues with the sultry showstopper “My Man” in the second act, while Stofferahn turns in a poignant rendition of Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.” Noland has the audience laughing with the suggestive “Makin’ Whoopee!”
The singers create terrific harmonies on a number of songs, from George M. Cohan’s tribute to Broadway opening the show, to the closing “Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive.” Lovers seem to love the moon, and five of the show’s 30 songs mention the moon in the title, from “Shine on Harvest Moon” to “Moon River.”
Burton soars with the Harold Arlen tune “That’s a Fine Kind o’ Freedom,” which became an anthem for racial equality. Martin Charnin’s lyrics include references to the crow being as free as the dove and not having to “go to the back of the sky.”
Georgianna Londre-Buchanan’s costumes are simply stunning, especially the sequin-covered ruby red and sapphire blue gowns worn by Burton and Stofferahn in the second act.
I can’t say much about one of the most enjoyable moments of the show without spoiling the surprise. The song’s not on the printed program and, depending on circumstances, may or may not last the run. Even mentioning it feels like a jinx. But it’s the first time I remember Barnhart inviting the audience, albeit begrudgingly, to sing along.
“Tin Pan Alley” runs through Nov. 1 at Quality Hill Playhouse, 303 W. 10th. St. Call 816-421-1700 or go to www.qualityhillplayhouse.com/.