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David Finkle

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First Nighter: Cy Coleman's Best is Yet to Come is Here Now at 59E59 Theaters

Posted: 05/27/11 04:45 PM ET

Cy Coleman composed the music for 10 Broadway shows -- Sweet Charity, Little Me, City of Angels, among them -- and even wrote lyrics for one -- the short-running Welcome to the Club. That he was startlingly prolific at making memorable melody only begins to enumerate his talents. Yet his name isn't always, or even often, included when Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwin brothers, Frank Loesser or Stephen Sondheim are mentioned.

Not as many hit songs written? That can't be the catch, since he filled the Great American Songbook with standards ("It Amazes Me," "The Best is Yet to Come," "Witchcraft," for example) featuring roll-off-the-tongue lyrics by master craftswoman Carolyn Leigh) and a couple classics, written when he was still a teenager, with Joe A. McCarthy -- "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life" and the brilliant "Why Try to Change Me Now?" (check out Frank Sinatra's heart-breaking 1952 recording from the waning Ava Gardner years).

Surely, Coleman's too-frequent absence from the A-list isn't due to the reputation he acquired in his youth as a top-flight jazz pianist -- a reputation he was still confirming in a Feinstein's at Loews Regency gig only weeks before his 2004 death at 75. It would be unpleasant to think his dexterity in the field disqualified him in some analysts' estimation for musical-comedy exaltation.

Sometimes a composer's low ranking on that sterling B'way roster is attributed to his having worked with too many lyricists. Well, let's just laugh that one out of our lives, since the number of first-rate lyricists with whom a composer works handily should only enhance how he's regarded. Besides Leigh and McCarthy, Coleman collaborated successfully and melodiously with Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Marilyn and Alan Bergman, Michael Stewart, Ira Gasman and David Zippel.

Surely, it's not being held against him that perhaps the consistently greatest interpreter of his songs, particularly the ones for which Leigh fastened her words to his notes, was singer's singer Mabel Mercer, who usually confined herself to intimate rooms. (Did Tony Bennett latch on to "The Best is Yet to Come" only after hearing Mercer intone it? There's a good chance he did.) Mercer was such a Coleman-Leigh advocate that some of the adorably catchy ditties the team penned were only performed by her in Manhattan's postage-stamp Downstairs at the Upstairs room. There's one this reporter heard -- only once and can't remember its title -- he wishes he could hear again. And again.

One way to sing Coleman's praises in hopes of advancing him farther up that exclusive list is to sing his songs one after another after another from a stage. And that's what's transpiring right now in The Best is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman, a new revue at 59E59.

The best is yet to come? Not this time. It's already here as it deliciously unfolds by way of singers Sally Mayes (whose 1989 Broadway bow was in Welcome to the Club), Lillias White (who won her Tony in the Coleman-Gasman The Life) and Rachel York (who let off steam heat in City of Angels) as well as David Burnham (who has an undeniable affinity for the coolth flowing through Coleman's work). At the piano on Douglas W. Schmidt's big-band-1958 set Billy Stritch plays -- and often sings -- his own arrangements, all of them channeling Coleman's unique jazz-theater-pop sensibility.

The two-act entertainment is so good -- so smoothly staged by Zippel, choreographed oh-so-casually by Lorin Lattaro under Michael Gilliam's lights and with Jonathan Burke's sound -- that once it ends its run in this swanky East Side space, it deserves a berth in an off-Broadway house (or maybe even in a Broadway house) where that many more lovers of unforgettable songs will get a chance to dip happily into it.

Incidentally, Stritch is the kind of fastidious arranger who knows enough to forget about reprising as many familiar and unfamiliar songs as possible, many of them stuffed into fly-by-night medleys. Stritch and Zippel, who conceived as well as directed, make certain that if a song is begun, its middle and end are presented and well, especially as played by the seven additional musicians.

This means that -- medley or no medley -- "You Fascinate Me So" gets a velvet-y reading from McGillin; Mayes tackles "Nobody Does It Like Me" and proves the title is an apt description of her gifts; White commandeers the show when reprising her Tony-winning "The Oldest Profession"; Burnham puts the sizzle in "Witchcraft"; York commands attention with "Hey, Look Me Over"; and Stritch croons "It Amazes Me" as if he's the love child of Coleman and Mel Tormé.

That's not even the half of it. Some of the songs premiered here are from Napoleon and Josephine, an as-yet-unproduced Coleman-Zippel tuner. "Those Hands," with the Bergmans' sparkling lyrics (about a magical piano player who could be Coleman himself), come from Like Jazz, which, if I remember correctly, was done on the west coast but never this side of the continent.

Is anything wrong with The Best is Yet to Come and its power to encompass Coleman's wide-range composing skills? Not much, although if I had my way, I'd drop one of the Napoleon and Josephine items (maybe "I'd Give the World") and substitute "Why Try to Change Me Now?" On the other hand, why try to change this gem of a show now?