You might assume that the “American Songbook at NJPAC” series is one-dimensional, featuring a succession of artists performing favorites from the Great American Songbook. But the three sets that were filmed Sunday at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater (for later broadcast on public television stations NJTV, WLIW and Thirteen) offered distinctly different — and equally effective — ways to pay homage.
John Pizzarelli and his seven-piece band delved deeply into the work of songwriter Johnny Mercer. Laura Osnes and Santino Fontana, performing together, juxtaposed classic Broadway duets with more modern Broadway material. And Nellie McKay occasionally dipped into the Songbook but stuck mainly to her own witty, Songbook-influenced originals.
(Sets by Maureen McGovern, Marilyn Maye, and Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were also taped Saturday; the six performances as well as the brief interviews with host Ted Chapin that followed will be shown as six one-hour public-television specials, with air dates to be announced later.)
Pizzarelli’s approach was the most scholarly, with brief stories about Mercer, the movies he wrote for and his many different collaborators (he was mainly a lyricist, and wrote with everyone from Hoagy Carmichael to Henry Mancini). Yet there was nothing dry or dusty about the music, which was frequently punctuated with dazzling guitar solos and virtuoso scat singing. The set peaked with its last four numbers: swinging versions of “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Goody Goody”; a bittersweet take on the last song Mercer wrote, the ballad “Closing Night”; and an impressively deft run through the tongue-twisting “Too Marvelous for Words.”
Pizzarelli comes from the world of jazz, but Osnes and Fontana — who co-starred in Broadway’s “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella” — are firmly rooted in the world of musical theatre, and their duets, accordingly, were full of dramatic interplay. They could have put together a fully satisfying set just by running through the classics, but their idea to pair the older songs to newer (and, mostly, less familiar) ones with similar themes was a good one. Thus, the Irving Berlin anthem of one-upsmanship, “Anything You Can Do,” for instance, segued nicely into Cy Coleman’s flirtatious “The Tennis Song” (from “City of Angels”), and the wide-eyed “The Boy Next Door” (from “Meet Me in St. Louis”) led to its more neurotic modern counterpart, “First Date/Last Night,” from “Dogfight.”
McKay was the eccentric of the bunch — she’d be the eccentric of most bunches — with a set ranging from her own satiric “I Wanna Get Married” (“I want a nice ‘Leave it to Beaver’-ish/Golden retriever and a little white house”) to the novelty song “Knock on Wood” (performed by Dooley Wilson in “Casablanca”) and the Shel Silverstein-written, Loretta Lynn-popularized “One’s on the Way” (not usually performed at Great American Songbook shows, but lyrically sharp enough to work here). She showed genuine, non-ironic affection, though, for the standards she performed, including “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” and “The Nearness of You.”
In her post-performance interview with Chapin, she seemed extremely flustered — so much so that you suspected she was exaggerating her confusion, for comic effect. For when she performed, she seemed in complete control — as a singer, an instrumentalist (she played ukulele as well as piano), and a songwriting provocateur.