27 November 2012

A Party with Amanda Green & Friends

Years ago, the legendary book-and-lyrics team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green used to throw parties — or rather, A Party with Comden & Green. On TV or in a theater, they’d get up, tell funny stories, and sing songs from their vast and indispensable catalogue. Two albums record these performances, and they’re among the treasures of my LP collection. They provoke in this listener the irresistible fantasy that he’s sitting in a living room (either Betty’s or Adolph’s, or maybe Leonard Bernstein’s or Judy Holliday’s or some other friend’s), where a real party is going on. You’re soaking it in, listening to smart talk and great music from fun people — and trying not to shout out “Rin Tin Tin” when the pressure to name-drop grows too strong. When one day I finally got to see Adolph Green and Phyllis Newman’s living room, I thought, “Yes. This is exactly what I pictured. This is what life in New York City is supposed to be like.”

The reality hasn’t always worked out that way for me, but every now and then, Phyllis and Adolph’s daughter, the songwriter Amanda Green, takes charge. She did so again last night, at the New York nightclub Birdland, leading a spectacular review of her songs, joined by a pack of her super-talented friends, appropriately called “Amanda Green and Friends.” And when I tell you that it was a great party, I mean party in the very best sense, the Golden Age of New York sense, in which life is what it’s supposed to be.

What she was born to do: Amanda at Birdland.
This and all subsequent photos by Monica Simoes©.

After all, Amanda Green will have two shows on Broadway this season: Bring It On, which closes December 30, and Hands on a Hardbody, which is slated to begin previews in February. She gave us a sampling of both. From Bring It On, we heard the fierce trio “It Ain’t No Thing,” performed by the cast members Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, and Gregory Haney; Elle McLemore wasn’t able to join the team last night, so Amanda gamely performed Eva’s cheerily vicious “Killer Instinct,” with an assist from Broadway’s brightest muse, Jenn Colella. Ever incandescent, Jenn also offered a sample of Amanda’s work from High Fidelity, in which she starred on Broadway a few seasons ago. Another longtime exponent of Amanda’s work, Brooks Ashmanskas, sang what’s become an Amanda Green Standard, “If You Leave Me.”

I am now officially revved up for Hands on a Hardbody, from which we heard several numbers, with performances by cast members Andrea Burns and Jay Armstrong Johnson, both new to me and both marvelous, as well as by Amanda and Trey Anastasio, who along with Amanda has written the songs for the show. What’s especially fascinating to me about her work in these songs is her authentic feel for Texas. She understands the place better than I do, though she’s an Upper West Side girl to her core. She’s also written for the show what is without question the greatest Keith Carradine song since “I’m Easy” — and moreover she announced that he’s signed to do the show. The minute the guitar started playing, I knew she’d nailed it: the song fits Carradine like an exquisitely tailored kid glove.

Authenticity: Because Jenn Colella requires the best.

Really, authenticity may be the key to Amanda’s gifts as a songwriter. Even in purely comic numbers — including the hilarious, semi-demented scenas for First Lady Betty Ford and the actress Fran Drescher (the latter’s “Be Yourself” anthem is almost scarily universal) — Amanda doesn’t talk down to her character or to her audience. That’s the great strength of Bring It On: yeah, the stakes of a cheerleading competition are small-scale to the rest of the world, but to the characters, this is the biggest thing that’s ever happened to them, and Amanda respects that. Her sympathy for the small-town Texans in Hands on a Hardbody shines through every word, too.

This may be the first such evening when Amanda didn’t perform her most personal song, “Up on Daddy’s Shoulders,” the tender expression of a daughter’s love. I missed it — and yet I also understood why it wasn’t necessary. As an artist, Amanda truly is up on her daddy’s shoulders now, excelling in the field where he excelled, and proving that she knows how to throw a party.

The next time Amanda comes to Birdland, I hope you’ll join me there. In the meantime, hurry up and see Bring It On, and start booking your tickets to Hands on a Hardbody.

With a little help from her friends: Colella, Johnson, Burns, and Anastasio join Amanda onstage.

No comments: