Seldom is an actor more comfortable in the skin of his role than Billy Philadelphia as songwriter-piano plugger Hoagy Carmichael. That mystic habitation is what will sell Hoagy: The Hoagy Carmichael Musical until its creators find a way out of its present supperclub act into the world of musical theater.
Make no mistake: This is a fascinating evening with an irrepressible guy whose brandy snifter you'd love to fill with $10 bills -- a buck or three for Hoagy/Billy, the rest for the sizzling jazz band, singers and dancers in orbit around him. Powerful, rich-voiced B.J. Crosby fires up the barnstormers between Philadelphia's whisky-throated warbles. Bob Gaynor and Joanna Louise are a muscular adagio team that also provides vocal trimmings.
What those others do around Philadelphia is provide musical depth and visual enhancement for a show that director-choreographer Walter Painter is trying to bulldoze out of its "and then I wrote..." format. Painter has the time, because Philadelphia's Hoagy is so right, Crosby is so hot, and Stardust is just the top of the mountain of Carmichael favorites.
So, does the man (or the cast) really need the dorky prologue with a pair of moderns listening to Norah Jones and Ray Charles versions of Hoagy's music?
The arrangements for Crosby by Philadelphia and Louis St. Louis peel away the jazzy layers of the Stardust melody like an onion, accompanied by Philadelphia's piano and the band's rhythm section. Crosby also tears into Rockin' Chair to make the crowd sit up and pay respect to the blues, and Georgia on My Mind in a way that makes you forget Ray Charles for the moment. And then she turns dreamy for Skylark.
Philadelphia narrates his way casually through Carmichael's life, growing up in the Midwest, tossing aside a career as a lawyer to fraternize with the big-band and jazz giants, and blooming late as the pop firmament's original singer-songwriter. He delivers novelty songs such as I'm a Cranky Old Yank from the Carmichael party music catalog, plus saloon favorites like Washboard Blues, Lazybones and a brisk ramble across Lazy River.
He also gets to pair up with Crosby on the likes of New Orleans, for which the horns and clarinet kick in. The band also shows its chops on Riverboat Shuffle. Pas de deux by Gaynor and Louise decorate many cadenzas and finales, none better than the denouement of The Nearness of You.
David Mitchell's set is supperclub classic, with the piano on a turntable that whisks the star to wherever director Painter wants the action.
It's a big move for Philadelphia, who started his Carmichael tribute as a cabaret show nearly 20 years ago. Hopes are to take this edition somewhere farther up the show business road. If the pavement runs out between here and New York, there are no stop signs after the first left to Las Vegas.
Jack Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 954-356-4706.