Encores! Stairway to Paradise, City Center, New York

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If it was on television – and, who knows, one day it could be – they’d call it The Kristin Chenoweth Show. This hugely talented comedian and singer with an operatic range, sassy looks and personality does indeed make the last Encores! of the season a bit of paradise.

An exhilarating show honouring Ziegfeld and the Follies’ 100th anniversary, Stairway to Paradise departs from the usual formula. The series’ artistic director Jack Viertel and director Jerry Zaks combed through material to string together some 30 songs and sketches from revues spanning from 1901 to 1950. The spark that sets this idea ablaze is Chenoweth, aided by her co-stars Kevin Chamberlin and Christopher Fitzgerald, who give her plenty of opportunity to mug and pratfall when they’re not being hilarious in their own turns.

Two sketches, one from Keep Cool (1924) and another from Touch and Go (1949) prove again that vaudeville may be dead but it won’t lie down. In the first, The Yellow Peril, golden rod is substituted for roses and three actors are reduced to sneezing their lines. Not so funny? It is, particularly when Chamberlin sneezes so hard he loses his toupee and Chenoweth a-tishooingly hands it back to him. In Gorilla Girl from Touch and Go, whose authors were Jean and Walter Kerr, Chenoweth is the dumbest of blonde movie stars whose only talent is a fixed smile. Fitzgerald is Skeet, a gorilla whose IQ far outweighs hers. Skeet does everything perfectly; she can’t read her lines even when she’s holding them.

But it’s not only Chenoweth’s evening. Capathia Jenkins, whose rich voice easily swings from a jivey point number such as My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More (from Eubie Blake’s l930 Blackbirds) to a Wagnerian Valkyrie take-off, practically steals the show. On the dance side, excellently choreographed by Warren Carlyle, who makes maximum use of minimum space, top honours go to Kendrick Jones, whose stylish tapping in Doin’ the New Low-Down conjures shades of Bill Robinson in Blackbirds of 1928.

There are a few down spots – Ruthie Henshall’s stiffly sung bluesy numbers being two of them. But this is a show where everyone – from the strong singing and dancing cast to the orchestra pianist Chris Fenwick – has an extra sparkle. It may be the year’s last hurrah for Encores! but hurrah, hurrah indeed.
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