Review: ‘Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road’ Takes the Path Too Well-Traveled

You don’t hear much about Hoagy Carmichael these days, even if the prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriter is never too far. His 1927 song “Stardust” recently featured in “The Crown” and last year’s “Nightmare Alley” remake, and anyone who’s watched “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” has likely been taken in by Jane Russell’s lusty delivery of “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love?” The hitmaker himself even popped up this year in the New York Film Festival’s restoration of the 1946 film “Canyon Passage,” playing a happy-go-lucky musician — bearing little resemblance to Ian Fleming’s dashing 007, whose looks Carmichael was said to have inspired.

So the York Theater Company’s production of “Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road,” a nostalgic revue developed in collaboration with his son, arrives with little baggage, and lands nicely enough. Tamely directed by Susan H. Schulman, the 90-minute production presents dozens of Carmichael’s standards, enthusiastically performed by a cast of seven. But the dance numbers, carried mostly by an agile Cory Lingner, come few and far between. The show is sporadically choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld, who leaves several segments largely unadorned, pushing the limits of its agreeable case for the man’s music.

There’s a loose narrative throughline, which feels sort of like watching TV Land through an agreeable NyQuil haze — not necessarily a bad thing. Max, played by Dion Simmons Grier, runs the quaint Stardust Roadhouse saloon, and the show follows him and a few patrons through the first half of the 20th century. Each of the musical’s five acts, by way of James Morgan and Vincent Gunn’s scenic design, softly nods at Old Hollywood tropes (Club Old Man Harlem, U.S.O. Canteen), swapping wooden bar stools for brassier ones without much affecting the music choices.

Now, Carmichael does not seem to have purists or Twitter stans gunning for faithful recreations of his work, so with over 40 songs on the program, it’s a missed opportunity that Lawrence Yurman’s arrangements don’t take more liberties with where Carmichael’s simple tunes might go. The excellent six-person band, beautifully amplified by Julian Evans’s crisp sound design, is certainly good for it; their smooth transitions set a crucial, continuous pace without which the piece would seriously falter.

The band’s smooth transitions set a crucial, continuous pace, and Jenerson’s slow numbers are standouts.Credit…Carol Rosegg

The respectfulness of the orchestrations serves its slower numbers well, as in Kayla Jenerson’s gorgeous “The Nearness of You,” and the mash-up of “Skylark” and “Stardust” she later duets with Sara Esty, a standout with a persuasive knack for the time period. But the classic “Georgia On My Mind” distinguishes itself as much thanks to the touching melancholy the band provides — get ready to feel like you’re slow dancing at a blues joint throughout — as it is because it allows Grier to soar into a full-throated vocal crescendo that lends the night a needed bit of soulfulness.

Only “Heart and Soul,” sung with both by Danielle Herbert, breaks completely free of convention, jauntily staged as a cabaret act, with Herbert plunking away on a comically small toy piano. Then again, the handsome Mike Schwitter is let down when made to deliver “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes),” a song perhaps best quietly sobbed on the shower floor, as an 11 o’clock number.

The revue has been in development for at least a decade and, though it in many ways still feels like a workshop, it is not without charm, thanks to its timeless music and chipper performers. While this current staging is missing a requisite ice bucket and ashtray next to each seat, it’s a low-key, classy affair best enjoyed with a pen in hand, marking down which songs might suit your next dinner party.

Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust Road
Through Dec. 31 at the York Theater Company, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.

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