REVIEW- Neil Berg’s 101 Years of Broadway- San Jose Rep Theatre

101 years. That’s a long time. Though I deny liking musicals more times than I admit to liking them, I’m super glad Broadway has made it that far. I hope it continues to flourish for many, many more centuries. San Jose Rep is helping to celebrate this milestone by bringing that cabaret style show Neil Berg’s 101 Years of Broadway to the theatre for just five performances and what a tremendous display of musical history as well as even some Broadway future it is!

Three instruments, five singers (all with prestigious Broadway pasts and presents) woo and thrill the audience with a variety of songs from such shows as Cabaret, Wicked, Chicago, South Pacific, Jekyll and Hyde, Phantom of the Opera, Rent, Oklahoma, Big River, Sunday in the Park with George, Ghost (yet to be released), My Fair Lady, Les Miserable, Beauty and the Beast and Camelot.

Neil Berg himself was at the piano and although his “cheese factor” was a bit over the top for me personally, he is undeniably a showman and you have to applaud his genuine enthusiasm for Broadway and life on tour. He’s like Charro and George Costanza from Seinfeld with a little Victor Borge thrown in. Entertaining and talented? Yes.

Whether it was jet lag or just a Tuesday night the first act felt heavily phoned in by the singers for the most part. Now, when I think about it, I do feel bad for anyone that has to sing any song that Julie Andrews, Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters or Idina Menzel ever sang. Double that for Colm Wilkinson or Michael Crawford. That’s got suck just a little no matter how much you rock, and the second act for me sold the show and provided the proof I needed to assure me the cast indeed DOES rock.

Nothing Like a Dame from South Pacific was the feel good pick of the night and presented wonderfully by our three men. They were having fun by that point. Maybe it was the Red Bull at intermission? If I can’t Love Her from Beauty and the Beast as well as If Ever I Would Leave You from Camelot (sung to a woman in the audience) were impressive as well. Defying Gravity from Wicked was a huge song, done very respectfully, with a lot of power and emotion, but the harmonies and blending were just not this casts’ strength. With the exception of the encore of 525,600 minutes from Rent (which the audience helped out with) they probably ought to have stuck to the solos.

Absent from the production was anything from Evita, Chess, Little Shop of Horrors, Into the Woods, Grease, Ragtime, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Sound of Music, Godspell, or Guys and Dolls. I guess you can’t include all 101 years though, right? I don’t recall a Cole Porter song or a George or Ira Gershwin number either, but I wager they mix things up a bit as no program with a song list was provided. Additionally, with 5 singers with very specific styles and a limited “orchestra” some of those numbers might not actually have improved upon the overall production value.

So it was a bit of a draw for me, some exhilarating highs and some head-scratching lows. I think if you like classic Broadway tunes you’ll enjoy this production a lot. Though I wanted more from the actors at times (on a blank stage with no character costumes, other actors on stage and in some ways limited having to hold a hand mic) there were some lovely and amazing notes to be sure, belted to a receptive audience. A celebratory 3 jewels out of 5 in the review tiara. Neil Berg’s 101 Years of Broadway plays just one week, through this Saturday, February 18th at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.

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