'Wizard: The Musical Journey of Oz Composer Harold Arlen'


"Wizard: The Musical Journey of Oz Composer Harold Arlen" opens with a video montage that includes a testimonial from Tony Bennett:

"Everybody knows those songs, but they don't know Harold Arlen's name the way they do Gershwin."

Those who see the new effort at the Greek Isles will leave with respect for Arlen's prolific, diverse career. The revue barely covers the "greatest hits" of the composer best known for "The Wizard of Oz" movie, who penned more than 550 songs with lyricists such as Johnny Mercer.

Arlen wrote shows for Harlem's Cotton Club in the early 1930s, pulling an innate sense of jazz and swing from the Jewish cantorial improvisations he grew up with.

He penned two of Frank Sinatra's greatest standards: "I've Got the World on a String" and "One for My Baby." Louis Prima and Keely Smith made "That Old Black Magic" their theme. And, we are told in this show by Arlen's son Sam that when he wrote "Stormy Weather" for Ethel Waters, she called him "the Negro-est white man I ever met."

Fitting Arlen's songbook into a showcase along the lines of "Ain't Misbehavin' " or "Smokey Joe's Cafe" is such a good problem to have, the collaborators hadn't yet found a slot for one of his most familiar standards, "Come Rain or Come Shine."

But the conundrum of this "Wizard" enterprise is that enlightenment doesn't come until after you buy a ticket. And selling a lot of those for even a six-week run is a long shot, given Arlen's relative obscurity, the even more obscure showroom and the lack of a star name to headline.

Sometimes a show isn't misbegotten, just misplaced. Granted, a review should discuss the content more than the business plan. But in this case, they are almost inseparable. It's fair to describe "Wizard" as a good "locals show," much in the vein of the Las Vegas Tenors at the Suncoast or recent attractions at the Starbright Theatre in the Sun City development of Summerlin.

It makes complete sense that Arizona-based producer Perry Damone (son of singer Vic), Las Vegas-based crooner George Bugatti and Sam Arlen have mostly sold the revue in other cities for subscription series, where people buy in bulk and aren't let down if they find this one capable but missing that certain extra something.

Bugatti has ripened into resonant, Bennett-style voicing on "The Gal Who Got Away," and his piano work adds some visual interest. He's flanked by the rest of The Three Crooners, as they are billed: the solid, if not memorable duo of Johnny K and Alistair Tober, both of California, with occasional assists from Bugatti's spouse, Missy Shriver.

Another unsung Las Vegan, the single-named Genevieve, wisely is held back as a nice surprise nearly an hour in, the point where audience members are thinking maybe they've seen it all. When Genevieve isn't doing this show, she's honing a Billie Holiday retrospective (she performs it on Sundays at the Family Music Center), so it wasn't much of a stretch for her to slam-dunk "Stormy Weather" or the less-heard "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day."

It's harder to find room for Sam Arlen. His saxophone punctuates the Cotton Club and "Oz" segments, but his narration only hits home in the few moments when he gets personal about his family. The rest of his role adopts the cutesy, overused format of an old-time radio broadcast.

Based on a "soft opening" performance before last Saturday's official media night -- it was supposed to be a ticketed performance but ended up more a dress rehearsal -- "Wizard" will benefit from some tightening and an enthusiastic audience. Any ambitions toward a bigger future probably will require that missing star and sharper writing.

But for a little show, it's ambitious with a five-piece band and multimedia cues, including behind-the-scenes "Oz" footage once considered rare but now widely available as a DVD extra.

However, the show as a whole may benefit from its scarcity. It's standard issue for its kind, but its kind isn't taken for granted in Las Vegas. At least not by locals, with whom the rescue mission will be entrusted.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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