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On the Sunny Side of the Street

A straightforward show saluting a prolific songwriter charms like her work

Photo: Clinton Brandhagen, License: N/A

Clinton Brandhagen

Delores King Williams belts it out with Howard Breitbart.

On the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields

Musical Direction by Howard Breitbart. Book by James Gardiner

At Theatre Project through Jan. 1, 2012

On opening night, many older couples, wives wrapped in furs, gathered for the show in honor of Dorothy Fields, a lyricist who rose to fame in the late 1920s, penning such hits as “I’m in the Mood for Love” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” among many others. Even those unfamiliar with Broadway would recognize her work, and that’s just one of the reasons that this show should extend beyond the mink-coated crowd.

As part of Everyman Theatre’s winter concert series, On the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields presents a selection of Fields’ most beloved songs, stringing them all together with a loose narrative that takes the audience through the life of the highly successful songstress. Written by James Gardiner (who also stars as one of the vocalists), the script gives a little insight into her character, and it provides a nice anchor for the concert. Many of her songs are your standard lovey-dovey show tunes, so the idea of listening to those for over an hour without an intermission could be daunting if you don’t take well to saccharine. Luckily, the script balances the sweetness with Fields’ sassy and practical approach to songwriting.

The setup is simple, and it all works well. Musical director Howard Breitbart spends the entire performance at a piano center stage, while Dorothy Fields (Nancy Dolliver) tells her life story. A trio of vocalists brings her songs to life, and often Fields herself belts out her tunes along with them. At the start of the show, she takes the stage and explains her views on creativity. It’s not inspiration, she says, it’s sweat and hard work. In the ’20s, she rose through the ranks of Tin Pan Alley, a group of popular music songwriters and publishers. Each day, they’d churn out love songs and sappy ballads to set the nation’s heart aflutter, and for them it was less about the sentiment and more about the paycheck. She went on to write for Broadway shows and films like Swing Time, working right up until her death in 1974. Her take on the creative process is one of the more intriguing parts of the show, and hearing her talk about her love of crafting lyrics—really getting into the guts of her songs and laboring over them—proves fascinating.

The payoff comes when the three vocalists (Gardiner, Katie Nigsch-Fairfax, and Delores King Williams) step in to show the final product of all her efforts. They embrace her songs with energy and skill, singing perfect harmonies and playing various characters in Fields’ life. They move through the show with grace, switching hats without missing a beat. Breitbart also enters the story and takes on the roles of people who were close with Fields. Switching between her two closest collaborators (Jimmy McHugh and Jerome Kern), he breathes life into her words with music, effectively capturing the emotions of the songs. His playing is the glue keeping the entire thing together, though on opening night his foray into acting proved slightly treacherous. A line or two were flubbed or forgotten, but he emerged with humor and kept the audience in good spirits. Dolliver’s portrayal of Fields, at times, also faltered slightly. Although she had the character down, when it came to smoothly delivering her lines, she stumbled here and there. Of course, it was the first night of the show, but for such a short run (a mere nine performances), there’s not much time to iron out the kinks.

On the Sunny Side of the Street has a minimal approach: no sets, no props. And magically, with just a piano and a handful of people, they weave an interesting and engaging tale. The work of lighting designer Jay Herzog lends a great deal to the show as well, employing subtle shifts in the lighting to change the scene or mood. He uses bright, warm light for lively numbers like “I Won’t Dance,” but then he covers the stage in red splashed with dark shadows for “The Rhythm of Life.” The latter is a highlight of the show, driving the audience to hoot and applaud its approval. At that moment, every element of the show came together flawlessly. All of the performers nailed the rather complex tune, and Breitbart pounded on the ivories with perfect intensity.

The show makes for a fine antidote to the wintertime blues. It’s definitely sweet, but it’s cut with Fields’ sharp wit to keep it from getting too over the top. At a tidy little 85 minutes, Sunny Side efficiently tells Fields’ story and provides a wide array of her songs. Her influence remains to this day (Barack Obama paraphrased one of her lyrics in his inauguration speech, for instance), so it’s a pretty daunting task trying to do her justice. This installment of the winter concert series, fortunately, pulls it off well.

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