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'Red, Hot' a Fine Salute to American Musical

December 27, 1996|JOHN DORSEY | THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON — Maybe you're a museum-goer in the mood for the art world's equivalent of the tired-businessman musical. Or maybe you're a tired businessman who doesn't want to shell out $50 or so to see the latest touring extravaganza. Either way, "Red, Hot & Blue" at Washington's National Portrait Gallery is just the show for you.

It's free, this "Salute to the American Musical," so you can't complain about the price of admission. It's got lots of pictures of glamorous people you've heard of all your life, from Flo Ziegfeld and Cole Porter and Gertrude Lawrence to Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and, of course, Fred and Ginger. As well as some people you might never have heard of.

It's an easy show to take, broken into five logical sections outlining the history of the American musical. It begins just after the Civil War and ends with the revival of "Show Boat" that's running at the Ahmanson in L.A. and on Broadway right now. Each section introduces you to the main characters and, where appropriate, fills you in on what they did to advance the American musical. Aside from the pictures of the people--sometimes expected (suave Cole Porter), sometimes surprising (was Irving Berlin really that young once?)--there are lots of sheet music covers with their delightful and often quite sophisticated designs.

And there are the five videos, one in each section, calling to you, drawing you on with their snippets of performance: George M. Cohan rasping "I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune" (makes you realize how well Jimmy Cagney played him in the movie bio) and Sophie Tucker slogging through "Some of These Days." Helen Morgan singing "Bill" in her fidgety way and Al Jolson sobbing "Mammy." Fred coaxing Ginger to "Face the Music and Dance" and Ethel Merman belting out "I Got Rhythm." Gene Kelly splashing along as he croons "Singin' in the Rain" and Ezio Pinza growling "Some Enchanted Evening" in Mary Martin's ear. The gang from "Hair" doing "The Age of Aquarius" and Carol Channing prancing across that runway for the umpteen-thousandth time and assuring you (as if you didn't already know it) that "Dolly'll never go away agai-ai-nnn."

So who could ask for anything more from this combined National Portrait Gallery/National Museum of American History exhibit? Well, on the lighter side, you could wish for longer videos. Each one crams about eight to 12 clips into four or five minutes, for an average of something like 30 seconds a clip. So that just as you're beginning to get the feel of what it was like to watch Eddie Cantor skip around the stage singing "Oh Gee Georgie," or just as Judy's glorious voice begins to bathe you in "The Trolley Song"--poof! They're gone.

On the more serious side, you could wish for more three-dimensional material. There's a little bit. There's the red chair with the dragon arms owned by J.J. Shubert, who with his brother Lee formed the Shubert organization that became Ziegfeld's chief rival in the era of the great impresarios, the 1910s and 1920s. (Ziegfeld's gone, but the Shubert organization still lives.) There's a pair of shoes danced in by Fred Astaire in "Top Hat." And a pair of Judy's red shoes from "The Wizard of Oz." And a few costumes, including Dolly's gaudy red runway-tripping number.

It may be impossible to define something that encompasses as much history and diversity and as many people as the American musical does. It's probably only possible to do what this show does well, sketch in the history and the people and give us some idea of how the American musical got formed.

The first section, "Setting the Stage: Street Scene, 1866-1906," shows us that it had its roots partly in the various strains of ethnic comedy and music that fed into the melting pot of New York in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--among them Irish, German, Jewish, African American.

It was singer and early impresario Tony Pastor who pulled the comedy and variety and musical acts out of the saloons and gave them the respectability of vaudeville for the middle class.

During the age of the show's second section, "Curtain Up: The Rise of the Impresario, 1907-1927," Florenz Ziegfeld elevated the vaudeville show to the status of revue by giving it a loose story line and making it much more high-toned and visually elegant in his annual "Ziegfeld Follies."

"Light the Lights: Broadway and Hollywood, 1927-1942" centers on the depressed and glamorous 1930s, the age when Cole Porter and George and Ira Gershwin wrote for stage and screen.

"The Heights: Broadway and Hollywood, 1943-1959" was of course preeminently the age of Rodgers & Hammerstein. But also of Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland, of Gene Kelly and "An American in Paris," of Gene again along with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain," and of Leonard Bernstein's masterpiece, "West Side Story."

In the final period, "Side by Side by Side: Redefinition and Revival, 1960-Present," the emphasis is on such diverse stage musicals as "Hello, Dolly!" and "Hair," "A Chorus Line" and "The Wiz."

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