Harold Arlen, the son of a cantor, grew up early in the 20th century listening to his father's singing and to classical music. He also was drawn to the sounds of black America and would go on to write songs for the Cotton Club. These influences and more wove their way into the songs he composed for stage and screen, including "Come Rain or Come Shine," "The Man That Got Away" and "Over the Rainbow."
Forever fresh, his music, written with some of the greatest lyricists of his era, is always worth the sort of attention it is given in "The Wonderful Wizard of Song: A Musical Journey Celebrating Harold Arlen," presented through tonight at the Ford Amphitheatre. Annoyingly, though, this two-act, two-hour-plus theatrical concert too often seemed, at Thursday's first performance, to use Arlen as mere pretext for the look-at-me shenanigans of its mixed bill of performers.
The show is designed largely to introduce an experiment in branding for which singer George Bugatti, who has some currency in Vegas, has grouped himself with two other singers to become "George Bugatti's Three Crooners." Arlen's nephew and adopted son, saxophonist Sam Arlen, performs and serves as MC-narrator.
At Thursday's show -- designated a preview performance because of technical complexities -- all were outclassed by guest singer Barbara Morrison. She turned "Last Night When We Were Young" into a whole history of love and in the second half transformed the torchy "Stormy Weather" into a gospel-blues testament to resilience.
Sounding at times like Tony Bennett, Bugatti sang with all the hallmarks of crooner style, half-whispering key words and sliding silkily through phrases. Boy-next-door-type Alistair Tober brought a smooth high baritone and musical-theater chops to his featured numbers. Completing the trio, Johnny K, no natural crooner, struggled with pitches and stumbled through the trying-too-hard-to-be-hip group choreography.
A 12-person band, composed of such top players as trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and guitarist Grant Geissman, performed jazzy, vintage-sounding orchestrations, over which Arlen, in his featured moments, noodled on the sax. His playing felt leaden, however, and collapsed into caterwauling in the joint Act 1 finale, "Blues in the Night."
`The Wonderful Wizard of Song'
Where: Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood
When: 8 tonight
Price: $29 and $32
Contact: (323) 461-3673 or www.FordAmphitheatre.org