Theater review: 'The Best Is Yet to Come' at Rubicon Theatre
Cy Coleman’s music has a way of sounding chipper even when the lyrics from one of his songwriting partners are scathingly sardonic. This spritzy irony between words and notes is part of Coleman’s signature showmanship. Just because you’re jangled and jaded doesn’t mean you don’t deserve an old-fashioned orchestra kick.
That brassy fullness is on dapper display in “The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman,” which is receiving its world premiere at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura. A celebratory revue devised and directed by lyricist David Zippel, who won a Tony for the original score he and Coleman wrote for “City of Angels,” the production surveys Coleman’s catalog, plucking out glittering pop standards, sparkling Broadway tunes (including a few deliciously bawdy ones) and a number of songs Coleman completed before his death in 2004 that are being theatrically unveiled for the first time.
The problem with this mostly enjoyable 90-minute offering of wall-to-wall music is that it’s not easy for us to get intimately acquainted with the distinctive personalities of the tirelessly energetic six-person cast. Popping in and out of musical theater attitudes, the performers try to reflect the various moods and styles of Coleman and his collaborators, who include such notables as Carolyn Leigh, Dorothy Fields and Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
More choreographed than a cabaret yet less dramatically structured than a musical, the production spins about in a pleasant enough limbo. But the stage, a good portion of which is reserved for an elegantly attired swing band, seems at once overcrowded and under-utilized.
Cramped, the ensemble resorts to phony comic affectations to liven things up. Clearly, the performers would like it, to paraphrase Coleman and Fields' “Sweet Charity” classic, if their friends (including Liza Minnelli, who was in attendance on Sunday night) could see them now. But boy, could somebody get them to cut out all the trite mannerisms?
Those who don’t have to break a sweat to convey essentials fair best. Billy Stritch, parked behind his piano with a cabaret king’s imperturbability, seems to embody the very soul of Coleman’s cool as he leads the company in a bubbly opening rendition of “The Best Is Yet to Come.” (Stritch’s singing, by the way, is as strong as his musical supervision and arrangements.)
Lillias White starts off slow yet simmers into a steady boil for “The Oldest Profession” from “The Life,” the Coleman-Ira Gasman show in which she won a Tony. Softly purring or belting at full blast, White seduces (wigged or wigless) with a readily available sassiness, which is put to good effect in "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," from Coleman and Comden and Green's "The Will Rogers Follies."
Sally Mayes and Julia Murney deliver a bouncy version of Coleman and Zippel’s “What You Don’t Know About Women,” one of the many numbers diagnosing the darker side of love. In a similarly unrosy yet nonetheless uptempo vein is Mayes’ delivery of “Nobody Does It Like Me,” Coleman and Fields’ self-deprecating anthem from “Seesaw.”
Jason Graae, who strains at moments with bug-eyed campiness, memorably croons “Witchcraft,” the indelible ditty Coleman wrote with Leigh. Graae is no Frank Sinatra, but he has a swanky voice that suggests the right amorous ambiance even when he’s signaling a mischievous smirk. (Graae's understudy, Tom Lowe, will be filling in for him for the rest of the run, though Graae will return if the show extends beyond its scheduled Aug. 2 closing date.)
In the romantic lead department, there’s David Burnham, an eager-to-please charmer with a winsome air. He seems young and occasionally goofy, but he certainly makes beautiful music with Murney in “Only the Rest of My Life,” a song Coleman wrote with Zippel that’s bound to have a healthy posthumous life.
The show’s galloping pace makes it slightly difficult for us to settle in. A little bit of patter might have dramatically situated the songs for the audience and provided a better sense of their place in Coleman’s career. Personally, I would have preferred more historical background and less tongue-in-cheek choreography (there’s hardly any room for Lorin Latarro’s dance high jinks, anyway). And a better microphone system, one that doesn’t distance the singers from the audience, would definitely add some coziness.
In "The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty," Wilfrid Sheed connects Coleman’s “master strategy for somehow staying both hip and out of date” with the eternal inspiration he found in “great old radio songs.” Incorporating this kind of critical assessment could transform this buffet of musical appetizers into a more nourishing theatrical meal.
-- Charles McNulty
“The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman,” Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura. 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 2. $39 to $65. (805) 667-2900. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
Photo: Top: Billy Stritch and Lillias White. Bottom: Jason Graae and Sally Mayes. Credit: Rod Lathim.