He says and she says. Watching Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan interpret the life and song lyrics of Dorothy Fields in their zesty centennial tribute, "A Fine Romance," is as entertaining as observing a fabulously zany tennis game. While one player rushes the net with a ferocious eagerness, the other hangs back and relies on long, floating overhead shots; put the two together and you have a manual on how to play the game.
"A Fine Romance," which opened the 25th fall cabaret season at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on Tuesday evening and continues through Sept. 24, also reconciles two opposite approaches to the performance of popular standards, one reverent, the other realistic. The reverent archivist often treats a songwriter's life and work as a musical encyclopedia entry. The ebullient realist yanks the songs out of their glass cases and infuses them with a conversational immediacy to remind you that these artifacts are living, breathing entities.
No lyricist had a more fluent gift of gab than Fields, the only woman to achieve full acceptance into the boys' club of great American songwriters. You have only to listen to the words of "I Won't Dance," "A Fine Romance" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" to feel invigorated by their wit and vivacity.
The clever, knowledgeable show unfolds as a breathless rush of verbal and musical banter. Mr. Nadler, a hawk-nosed beanpole who furiously crunches the piano, sings and plays some ukulele, is as jumpy as a marionette on speed. Ms. Sullivan, a voluptuous slice of strawberry shortcake with kewpie-doll eyes, a frayed semi-operatic soprano and a mastery of the slow comic take, is the whoopie cushion on which he rests his head.
Between the songs, they impart a ton of anecdotal information about Fields, who came from a show-business family and collaborated most frequently with the composers Jimmy McHugh, Jerome Kern, Arthur Schwartz and, in her last great show, "Sweet Charity," with the young Cy Coleman.
Each performer has a defining moment. Ms. Sullivan's is a dramatic medley of "Remind Me" and "I Must Have That Man," that segues from comic huffiness to romantic obsession. Mr. Nadler's is the comic tongue-twister "Erbie Fitch's Twitch," sung in a Cockney accent, from the 1959 show "Redhead." As for that tennis game, it ends in a draw.