By MARILYN LESTER**** The long-running series Lyrics and Lyricists has gotten off to a powerful start in its new 92nd Street Y season. Now under the direction of producer, Ted Chapin, this production put the spotlight on a single performer, Bobby Darin, with Broadway powerhouse Jonathan Groff at the helm. The choice was a wise one. It was apparent that a whole new market segment was occupying seats, and they made their presence vociferously known. When Groff took the semi-darkened stage in silhouette, the cheers and applause began. Groff, in the spotlight, cut a fine figure with “Beyond the Sea” (Charles Trent/Abert Lasry/Jack Lawrence), a sure signal that The Bobby Darin Story would be dynamite entertainment.
This isn’t the first time that the series has diverted its course from focusing on the work of a particular lyricist. But where there is a song there is a lyric, and it turns out in a “who knew” way, that Darin was not only extremely multi-talented, but among the hats he wore was that of songwriter. He composed 160 tunes total, of which 25 are accessible. Among them are his hits, “Dream Lover,” “Multiplication,” and “18 Yellow Roses,” sung in the key of Groff. The charismatic and popular performer was aided by an able supporting cast pitching in with role-playing and song. David Pittu, was, for example, Darin’s pal George Burns. George Salazar portrayed Wayne Newton (a Darin discovery) and Elvis Presley, who knocked Darin out of the box in their almost simultaneous TV debuts. Stephanie Styles was the perfect stand-in for Darin’s first wife, Sandra Dee, with Elena Shaddow as Dee’s young and hip mother.
Darin exhibited talent at a very early age, precociously mastering several instruments on his own and revealing a strong singing voice. Several bouts of rheumatic fever in childhood left him with a weak heart and a driving ambition for fame in what he knew would be a short life. In telling Darin’s story, the podium was eschewed for the cast delivering the salient points between songs. It was a dynamic way of moving the story along, crafted to bolster the drama in an inherently dramatic life. The song choices also fit well with the narrative, such as “Artificial Flowers” (Sheldon Harnick/Jerry Bock) illustrating Darin’s preoccupation with death, and “I Am,” by Darin, underscoring his comeback from a self-imposed hiatus. A stream of projections by Dan Scully, and savvy direction by Alex Timbers, kept the pace lively and the show moving along.
Darin was an intense and energetic performer, known for a finger-snapping style. In delivering his most well-known hits, such as “Splish Splash” (Bobby DarinJean Murray), “If I Were a Carpenter” (Tim Hardin) and “Mack the Knife” (Bertholt Brecht/Marc Blitzstein/Kurt Weill), Groff accurately got the style down to a “t” without imitation. Groff’s voice is a shade lighter than Darin’s mellow baritone, but they share superb qualities of phrasing and intonation. Likewise, arrangements by music directors and pianists, Andy Einhorn and Andrew Resnick, were modernized but accurate homages to the originals. Providing excellent musical backup were Brian Pareschi, trumpet; Todd Groves, reeds; Jim Hershman, guitar; Michael Thurber, upright bass and Jared Schonig, drums.
Bobby Darin died of heart failure at age 37. He cut a wide swath before he passed, not only in his popular singing, but in promoting the songs of the American Songbook. He also became a skilled actor, political activist and a record producer as head of his own music publishing company. For those who’ve had no direct knowledge of this polymath, his legacy was well served by Jonathan Groff and cast.
Lyrics & Lyricists: The Bobby Darin Story, with Jonathan Groff, Saturday through Monday, January 20-22 at the 92nd Street Y (92Y), 1395 Lexington Avenue, 212-415-5500, www.92Y.org