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Richard Holbrook: Richard Sings Rodgers With a Lot of Heart

Richard Holbrook: Richard Sings Rodgers With a Lot of Heart
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Richard Holbrook
Photo credit: Jeffrey Hornstein

Call him the gentleman of song.  "Isn't It Romantic?" "The Sound of Music," "Manhattan" were in fine hands at the Metropolitan Room with Richard Holbrook, a praiseworthy exponent of the many sides of Richard Rodgers' legendary music.   Choosing this songbook for his latest show, Holbrook demonstrated his distinctive musical taste, clear diction and a well-developed sturdy baritone with some of the most creative and sophisticated songs in the Great American Songbook. 

Richard Rodgers wrote most of his music with lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II and Holbrook selected from both collections.  Rodgers' long partnership with Hart produced music with an irresistible natural flair, pathos and wit.  Rodgers' days with Hammerstein shows a theatrical sweep.  Even today, music lovers are often divided between the Rodgers/Hart ("Glad to Be Unhappy") or Rodgers/Hammerstein ("Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'!") songbooks.  What's undeniable is that even with the two different and outstanding lyricists, the composer's melodies were consistently excellent and wisely, Holbrook chose songs from both camps. 
He opened the show with an elegant, "With a Song in My Heart" (Hart), interspersed with bits of "The Sound of Music" (Hammerstein) and "The Sweetest Sounds" (both music and lyrics by Rodgers).   Holbrook's vocal lines are long and secure, showcased easily in "Johnny One-Note" (Hart) and even more so in ballads like the emotionally charged, "I Have Dreamed" (Hammerstein).  Perhaps his most affecting ballad was the heartsick, "Little Boy Blue" (Hart) where Holbrook showed some moving phrasing and meaningful stress.  In his patter, Holbrook revealed that the "Prayer," written and discarded for a 1934 Jean Harlow film, was rewritten by Hart with new lyrics, resulting in a different song and a new mega-hit, "Blue Moon."  
Most of the up-tempo songs had lyrics by Hart, like "The Circus on Parade" and their 1919 debut song, "Any Old Place With You."  Holbrook also presented several sides of Holbrook.  He turned to his acting background for the dramatic "Soliloquy" from Carousel and donned a straw hat and a bit of a French accent recalling Maurice Chevalier's cosmopolitan "Mimi" from Love Me Tonight.  
To his credit, Holbrook gave special attention to Rodgers' outstanding waltzes.  A medley bookended with,  "Do I Hear A Waltz," with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim also included lovely waltzes written with lyrics by both Hart ("Falling In Love with Love") and Hammerstein ("Out of My Dreams").  Embellishing their silky melodic beauty were instrumentals like the "Carousel Waltz" (Hammerstein) played by the standout Tom Nelson Trio with musical director/pianist/arranger Tom Nelson, Peter Grant on drums, and Tom Kirchmer on bass.
Holbrook appreciation for Rodgers' music was evident.  It showed careful preparation and research with Richard Barclay's direction and a jazz-tinged backup of the Tom Nelson Trio.  One downside was the patter that could stand a red pencil edit.  It was heavy with details but revealed little about Rodgers' essence and other than Rodgers' medical problems, the personal difficulties that plagued him.  

To that end, just as Richard Rodgers was impressive with his drive and strength to keep creating memorable music even through a long bout with cancer, Richard Holbrook showed similar grit recovering from his own recent bout with a harrowing illness.   To present a show with such enthusiasm, range and polish points out Holbrook's dedication and devotion to the art of American music.  These were "The Sweetest Sounds" to be sure.