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Stardust Road

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - December 1, 2022

Markcus Blair, Kayla Jenerson, Cory Lingner,
Danielle Herbert, Mike Schwitter, and Sara Esty

Photo by Carol Rosegg
Hoagy Carmichael was born in Bloomington, Indiana, on November 22, 1899; his odd first name was derived from a circus troupe, the Hoaglands, who stayed at the Carmichaels' house while Hoagy was in utero. A ragtime addict from childhood, he trained as a lawyer but drifted quickly into popular songwriting, an avocation encouraged by his early friendships with Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. His first recorded song, 1924's "Riverboat Shuffle," was a hit, and from there he went on to compose several hundred more. Perhaps the best known, "Stardust," with a Mitchell Parish lyric I've never understood, inspired a Broadway revue of that name in 1987. Carmichael also maintained a modest film career and is a winning presence in two 1940s classics, To Have and Have Not and The Best Years of Our Lives. Known for hot rhythms and sophisticated harmonies, and melodies that take surprising turns even as they feel inevitable, he is more than deserving of a retrospective. And he deserves something more coherent than Stardust Road, the York Theatre Company's mystifyingly conceived revue.

Wedging some 40 songs into a little over 90 minutes, Stardust Road is filled with Great American Songbook treasures, well-known and otherwise. And it mostly sounds terrific, thanks to Lawrence Yurman's nifty conducting of a six-piece combo–bigger and bolder than the York's norm. But as a unified entertainment, the show, conceived by Yurman, director Susan H. Schulman, and choreographer Michael Lichtefeld, with the assistance of Hoagy's son, Hoagy Bix Carmichael, is a puzzler.

There are lots of ways to format musical revues. Some are straightforward medleys of a particular type of music or composer; some introduce a bit of a story to lend context to the playlist. One of the best, Ain't Misbehavin', lacks plot, but it turns its tunestack into a joyful look at a time, a place, and how an oppressed minority survived and triumphed through wit, resolve, and amazing songs.

Stardust Road falls between the cracks of all those. It's told in five parts, each in a specific time and place, though the songs residing in each part may or may not belong to that era. Part One, "Stardust Roadhouse, somewhere in Indiana," is set in the twenties, I guess, because Lichtefeld's dance routines go heavy on the Charleston. But you'll hear the 1929 "Stardust," the Oscar-winning "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening," from 1951, and both of the (excellent) songs Carmichael wrote with Harold Adamson for the film of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, in 1953. Those plus a dozen or so others, lesser known but very worth hearing: Markcus Blair turns "Gonna Get a Girl" into something sweet and funny, and Dion Simmons Grier and Mike Schwitter get maximum salacious mileage out of "Bessie Couldn't Help It." Part Two transports us into Harlem and presumably the 1930s, Part Three a USO canteen in wartime, Part Four 1950s Hollywood, and Part Five, "The Stardust Roadhouse, years later." But the songs are arbitrarily plopped in, this one going here because it didn't go there. And the segues from one song to another, often without applause buttons, are equally random.

The troupe of seven kinda-sorta play characters–that is, they're named Buster, Clara, Max, Bessie, Gloria, Charlie, and Wallace–but their personalities change from song to song, not connecting to anything like a throughline. He's in love with her. No, wait, he's in love with her, because it's a new song. A soldier died, they're wrapping a flag–who the heck was he? This isn't continuity, it's a series of snapshots.

The talent is fine: Cory Lingner's tapping on "Charlie Two-Step" just about leaves the stage in flames; Danielle Herbert makes the most of something called "Come Easy Go Easy Love"; and Sarah Esty ably sells "Skylark," for which Kayla Jenerson provides a counterpoint of "Stardust." (And if you've ever wondered whether "Skylark" and "Stardust" work contrapuntally, they don't.) Most of Yurman's arrangements are clean and snazzy, though "Heart and Soul" is delivered, strangely, as an up tune.

James Morgan and Vincent Gunn's set consists mostly of tables and chairs and a bar and stools, and Schulman's direction, aside from encouraging broad smiles from everyone, seems to consist mainly of putting those chairs and stools up on the tables and bar, taking them down, and putting them up again. The Hollywood sequence does glam up a bit, and among Alex Allison's clever, spangly costumes is a white tux I'd like to steal from Schwitter. Jason Kantrowitz's expressive lighting runs from deep purple to electric orange to mellow blue, and Julian Evans's sound design keeps most of the lyrics audible.

I'll heartily recommend Stardust Road as a swell earful of Hoagy Carmichael, including at least two dozen listenable songs you probably don't know, beguilingly sung and abetted by a couple of delightful choreographic moments. But who are these people, why are we spending 50 years with them, and is this show a narrative or just a jukebox? It really ought to make up its mind.

Stardust Road
Through December 31, 2022
York Theatre Company
St. Jean Baptiste Church, 150 E. 76th St., New York NY
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