Post image for Chicago Theater Review: I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING:  HAROLD ARLEN’S SONGS OF LOVE AND LOSS (City Lit Theater)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 14, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Varris Holmes, Jennifer T. GrubbFor half a century Harold Arlen did to notes what Monet made with colors: He found ways to make them make us very happy, equally sad, and never bored. A warm new offering from City Lit Theater, I’ve Got the World on a String: Harold Arlen’s Songs of Love and Loss is, notably enough, the last theatrical offering from the late Sheldon Patinkin, who did for Chicago theater what Arlen wrought in music. Here Sheldon leaves us with as good as he ever gave.

Staged by Terry McCabe, with musical arrangements and direction by accompanist Kingsley Day, and appropriate be-bop choreography from Brigitte Ditmars, this delightful compilation not only evokes several signature songs of Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, it takes us through two nights in Joe’s Bar, a Manhattan club in the mid-1940s. Here Arlen favorites, past and future, create a musical conversation among the selections. The same fun happens among the bobbysoxer or Zootsuiter drinkers: The barkeep and his soulmate the barmaid are joined by four patrons seeking love and shirking loss, and the piano player who turns it all to tunes.

Rachel Klippel, Chris Logan, Varris Holmes, Jennifer T. Grubb, Jameson Wentworth, Harmony France, Kingsley Day

As Arlen’s long-time collaborator Yip Harburg put it, “Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song makes you feel a thought.” That thinking feeling happens a lot in the 85 minutes of this two-act revue. Of course, superb lyricists like Harburg, Ira Gershwin, Leo Robin, Johnny Mercer, and Ted Koehler put the right words and pictures to equally inevitable melodies and rhythms. The perfect result was the classic “Over The Rainbow,” voted by Harmony France, Jameson Wentworth & Kingsley Day (at piano) in City Lit Theater's I've Got the World on a String - Harold Arlen's Songs of Love and Loss.the Recording Industry Association of America as the number one song of the 20th century (though my vote is for “Old Man River”). Here, of course, Dorothy Gale’s yearning for a technicolor life out of Kansas is mirrored in a song as tender as the sentiment.

As City Lit’s six songsters, period perfect in Thomas M. Keiffer’s costumes and lit by Kurt Ottinger, move around Ray Toler’s busy bar, two dozen songs sum up a career. Arlen’s work was as storied on Broadway as it was at Harlem’s Cotton Club and Hollywood’s soundstages. Of course, the big hits, such as “It’s Only a Paper Moon” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” are well represented and lovingly recreated: Jameson Wentworth sinks himself into the sultry “Stormy Weather,” popularized by Lena Horne, and the well-named Harmony France intones Judy’s heartbreak in “The Man That Got Away” and croons Old Blue Eyes’ casual joy in “I’ve Got the World on a String.”

Soft-singing Rachel Klippel conjures up “That Old Black Magic,” while Varris Holmes has fun with the delightfully salacious “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” one of Groucho Marx’s signature tunes. Each patron has a moment of introspection with the separate (and sometimes surprising) stanzas of “If I Only Had a Brain, Heart, the Nerve.” A dreamy Jennifer T. Grubb finds simple satisfaction proclaiming “Happiness Is Just a Harmony France in City Lit Theater's I've Got the World on a String - Harold Arlen's Songs of Love and Loss.Thing Called Joe,” while dapper Chris Logan incarnates tavern angst with “One For My Baby.” Every now and then, carried away by songs too happy to simply stand and sing, the ensemble breaks out in assorted Lindy Hops, jitterbugs, and swing flings.

Triggering instant nostalgia at first hearing, less familiar fare can be savored too, rarities which include “Happy As The Day Is Long,” “Out of This World,” “Lose That Long Face,” “As Long As I Live,” and “Fun To Be Fooled.” Like the better-known ballads, they reflect Arlen’s ability to set rueful and regretful romance in its proper place, the sounds he made. He could range from the communal bonhomie of “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” to the easy elegance of “Let’s Take a Walk Around the Block.” If he wrote sardonic stuff like “Down With Love” and “Last Night When We Were Young,” he countered it with such ebullient outbursts as “Let’s Fall in Love” and “Hooray for Love.” (Make up your mind…) Of course, a good composer can dig equal treasures out of heartbreak or infatuation, torch songs or serenades.

Rachel Klippel, Kingsley Day, Chris Logan

Kingsley, a fine composer in his own right, brings a Midas touch to Arlen’s art. With deft interplay, McCabe puts the sextet through plausible actions that reflect the lyrics as much as they showcase the scores. This is not the show that got away.

photos by Tom McGrath

I’ve Got the World on a String:
Harold Arlen’s Songs of Love and Loss

City Lit
Edgewater Presbyterian Church
1020 West Bryn Mawr Ave.
Mon, Tues, Fri & Sat at 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on April 10, 2016
for tickets, call 773.293.3682 or visit City Lit

for Chicago Theater info, visit Theatre in Chicago

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