The first in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s three-part musical celebration of the history of diversity in New York – The Melting Pot pays tribute to Lower Manhattan, from Battery Park to Chelsea. Written and directed by Founding Artistic Director Albert Schultz and included in this month’s Soulpepper on 42nd Street festival at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the concert, featuring original arrangements by Music Director Mike Ross, highlights the contributions of Irish, African-American, and Jewish immigrants to the evolution of the city’s soundtrack, while underscoring the Toronto-based company’s love of New York. Based on the audience’s reaction to the show, I can report that the feeling is mutual.
Schultz, who serves as host, opens with a summary of the background of Downtown, from the land’s indigenous Lenape people to the arrival of the international ethnic cultures with their distinctive musical heritages, then provides a running commentary between numbers in the mostly chronological survey of songs from the 19th and 20th centuries. Each segment is illustrated with background projections of period photographs (video design by Laura Warren) that create a mood of nostalgia, and support Schultz’s “Thesis” that “song is memory, and music helps memories.”
Guest artists Laura Neese and Leo Manzari set the theme of New York’s multi-ethnic mix with her Irish step-dancing and his African-American tap, at first performing individually, then alternating, and ultimately coming together in a compatible finale of spectacular rhythm and movement. They are followed by the haunting Hebrew hymn “Adon Olam” sung by Hailey Gillis and accompanied by Jacob Gorzhaltsan on reeds, which acknowledges the Jewish presence on the Lower East Side and its subsequent influence on the future of the city’s music. The African-American emigration from the South to New York is presented by Jackie Richardson, Troy Adams, and Andrew Penner in their impassionate solos and three-part harmony on the traditional spirituals “Deep River” (by JBT Marsh) and “No More,” along with the Delta blues song “Crawling King Snake.” The impact and intermingling of both the Jewish and African-American cultural styles is evident in the rousing rendition of Irving Berlin’s first major hit in 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band ” (with Attila Fias accompanying Schultz on piano), and George and Ira Gershwin’s popular “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from their 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, delivered with conviction by Adams.
Closer to our own time, the post-war focus of the show is on the 1960s, and its commitment to freedom of expression. Penner amps up the volume on Bob Dylan’s acoustic folk classic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (Dylan spent his early years in NYC in Greenwich Village, after moving from his native Minnesota), transforming it into a hard-rock anthem with high-decibel vocals and a back-up cacophony from the band. Andy Warhol’s second Factory on Union Square is represented in the show by Lou Reed’s 1972 groundbreaking hit “Walk on the Wild Side” (Warhol, himself the son of working-class Slovakian immigrants who realized the American Dream, briefly managed Reed’s band The Velvet Underground from 1965-67). Each verse, chronicling the avant-garde denizens of Warhol’s studio, features a different singer, and Ross cleverly integrates into Reed’s actual chorus the “Flower Duet” from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé (the old Academy of Music, the first successful opera house in New York, was located at 14th Street and Irving Place, and opera records were often played at the old Factory by actor Ondine and photographer Billy Name). Ross and Gillis perform a mash-up of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel” and Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” (his song was inspired by their encounter there), alternating between his softly poetic voice and her bluesy rock-and-roll.
Bret Higgins on bass and Lowell Whitty on drums lend their fine support throughout the show, as does Andres Castillo-Smith with his clear sound design. The concert concludes with the big sound of Richardson (“Canada’s national treasure”) and the ensemble joining in on a blockbuster rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water,” bringing us into the 21st century by giving current relevance to the 1970 hit single, and affirming Canada’s friendship and support of New York.
With New York – The Melting Pot, Soulpepper provides not only an hour and a half of musical entertainment, but also a quick educational look at the city’s history and diverse cultural heritage. We look forward to the return of the company with Parts 2 and 3 of the series.
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.
New York – The Melting Pot played through Saturday, July 22, 2017, at Soulpepper on 42nd Street, performing at the Pershing Square Signature Center – 480 West 42nd Street, NYC.