Billy Philadelphia croons to Joanna Louise in Hoagy: The Hoagy Carmichael Musical at the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Fine song revivals charm, thrill in `Hoagy'
Its gestation has been as slow as a languorous torch song, but Hoagy: The Hoagy Carmichael Musical proves the adage that good things come to those who wait. Or maybe to those who take the time to do them right.
Musicals and revues built around the oeuvre of a songwriter or a composer-lyricist team can flow from the mistaken assumption that if the music's great -- and if you're talking Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter or Hoagy Carmichael, it is -- you're home free. Not so. The concept, style, storytelling and performers have to serve and illuminate the songs, and the best revues transport you into the world of the songwriter's imagination.
Hoagy, the utterly beguiling and -- whenever B.J. Crosby is singing -- thrilling show that has just opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, does that (to borrow a Carmichael lyric) very well.
A longtime labor of artistic love for San Francisco-based entertainer Billy Philadelphia (real name: William C. Trichon), Hoagy has come to wondrous fruition under the guidance of director-choreographer Walter Painter.
The script, by Trichon and Bruce Dettman, touches on the highs (mostly) and lows (a few) in the long life of the Oscar-winning songwriter, a down-to-earth Indiana guy who gave the world more than 400 songs, including such enduring ones as Skylark, Stardust, Georgia on My Mind, The Nearness of You -- that artists like Rod Stewart and Norah Jones are still recording.
But what makes this production worthy of an afterlife (that is, after its run at the Grove Playhouse ends Nov. 21) is its combination of easy charm in Philadelphia's performance as Carmichael; Crosby's magnificent, chill-inducing vocals; the stylish movement of singer-dancers Bob Gaynor and the drop-dead gorgeous Joanna Louise; and how Philadelphia, musical supervisor Louis St. Louis and the others in the onstage band alternately bounce, boom and caress their way through Philadelphia's arrangements of Carmichael's songs.
Philadelphia is (to borrow another Carmichael song title) the heart and soul of Hoagy. Diminutive, his shoulders perpetually hunched as if he were bent over a keyboard (even when he isn't), the actor invites you into Carmichael's life as if he were an old friend just dying to share the richness, whimsy and beauty of this music with you. Philadelphia's voice is, like Carmichael's, adequate for putting the songs across. But this veteran cabaret performer knows how to make the vast playhouse space seem as intimate as a cozy club.
Clad in glittering gowns by costume designer Ellis Tillman, Crosby is the consummate team player when singing with Philadelphia, Gaynor and Louise, never more so than on the inventive, melancholy presentation of I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes). But the show's most glorious musical moments are her solos, as she brings nuanced, powerful interpretation to Skylark, Stardust, The Nearness of You and a killer Georgia on My Mind. The idea that she won't be singing these songs after Nov. 21 is just too sad.
Could Hoagy move to treacherous, irresistible Broadway? Maybe -- if it landed in a smaller theater, if David Mitchell's mundane set were scrapped for something lovelier, if Painter and Philadelphia tinker with the ending so it doesn't come off like an aw-shucks afterthought. But wherever it ends up, like Carmichael's music, Hoagy deserves to live on.
Christine Dolen is The Herald's theater critic.