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Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre


If you've spotted the posters about town, you might be curious about the five-part musical lecture series entitled Geniuses of the American Musical Theatre, now lighting up the Josephine Theater on select Mondays. Co-presented by Herb Keyser and Bett Butler, Geniuses complements Keyser's recently published history of musical theater, and features biographies interspersed with musical selections from an individual artist's career: from Harold Arlen and Cole Porter through Stephen Sondheim and Lloyd Webber.

I was only able to catch the first part of Monday's one-two punch of Berlin and Gershwin, but the lengthy first actâ??about 75 minutes, before an intermissionâ??allows, I think, a fairly accurate assessment of the series' strengths and weaknesses. First, the strengths: Keyser obviously adores musical theaterâ??he'd give show queens anywhere a run for their moneyâ??and his folksy enthusiasm and astounding memory absolutely command respect. Largely recalling his lecture while seated on a stool, Keyser traces Berlin's life story from in utero to in uniform, while hitting every one of Berlin's various tragedies and triumphs. (It's a lot like a Public Television special in that respect.) The evening is punctuated at crucial narrative intervals by Butler's exquisite piano playing and singing: she's the real thing, and I could have listened all evening to her stylings and her voice.

The series, however, desperately requires the vision (and strong hand) of a stage director. Keyser's text, while amusing, is also resolutely, even monotonously linear: Berlin's story in particular needs a ruthless editor and a greater sense of shape. (There's almost no sense of argument, here: Keyser is happy to allow incongruous details to jostle against each other uncomfortably. For instance, after a virtual hagiography of Berlin, we discover, to our surprise, that Berlin was also a drug-addled, irascible paranoiac. How did this happen, we want to know? Few answers are forthcoming.) In fact, while Keyser's lecture (and occasional, exuberant singing) could be profitably shortened, Butler's interludes could be greatly expanded: it was frustrating to hear only bits and pieces of selected songs rather than full verses and choruses. Geniuses are geniuses, in part, because of their superb sense of form and architecture, and one can't really appreciate the skill of a tunesmith without hearing the whole tune. In the case of Berlin, there's also the composer's astounding facility with countermelody, and I wish that this aspect of the composer's work had received greater attention: “Play a Simple Melody” is, after all, a model of its type.

Monday's audienceâ??composed largely of members of San Antonio's more mature communityâ??obviously enjoyed hearing songs and patter from early and mid-century, and there's something to be said for the pleasures of nostalgia: I don't deny it. But I think the series would be only improved by less talk, more song. Especially when you've a chanteuse the caliber of Bett Butler on stage, it's criminal not to employ her as much as possible: her voice is like the sun in the morning, and the moon at night.

-- Thomas Jenkins, a Current theatre critic.

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