Jule Styne composed Broadway’s greatest overture, for Gypsy, and if anyone might be able to do it justice with only one instrument, it would be Mark Nadler, who wrings magic out of piano keys better than any other cabaret artist around. Nadler plays just the top of the overture before segueing into Gypsy’s “All I Need Is the Girl” to open the Styne tribute at the Oak Room. And that song provides a perfect lyric—“If she’ll just appear...”—for the entrance of Nadler’s costar, KT Sullivan.
Of course, the Styne songbook provides a perfect tune for almost any occasion, as even the small sampling of his work performed by Sullivan and Nadler demonstrates. They could include only 20 or so of the composer’s 1,500 songs in their show, Everything’s Coming Up Roses (created for the centennial of Styne’s birth), but their selection illumines that one aspect of the Styne legacy is a song for every emotion and state of mind. Sullivan’s solos, for instance, vary from forlorn (“Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”) to jocular (“I Said ‘No’”), flirtatious (“Small World”) to resilient (“I’m Going Back,” the 11 o’clock number from Bells Are Ringing). There are also medleys of opposing sentiments, such as “Bye Bye Baby” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You, Baby.”
Nadler and Sullivan also pair tunes from different musicals by theme, as with “Penniless Bums” (from Sugar) and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Perhaps as an inside joke, the latter is performed not by Sullivan—who sang it as star of the 1995 Broadway revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—but by Nadler, at a slowed tempo.
The highlight of the evening is the medley of “Time After Time” and “Just in Time,” which allows Nadler to show off his (also extraordinary) talents as a tap dancer—which he does while playing the piano—and arranger. Sullivan sings one song and Nadler the other simultaneously, and then they seamlessly switch. The show also offers other earmarks of a Sullivan/Nadler show: an altered tempo or some other variation to make familiar songs fresh (those from Bells Are Ringing are sung off-mike, because Broadway was unamplified when that show originated) and an interesting biographical sketch—including that Styne was a classical prodigy as a child, an inveterate gambler as an adult, and Frank Sinatra’s contractually mandated composer for several movies.
More than anything, Jule Styne was a paragon of old-school songwriting: With his lyricist collaborators, he created memorable scores full of songs that have had a life beyond their shows and movies, and he composed a slew of standards outside his show music. There may be no better therapy for musical theater fans in this impoverished Broadway season than hearing a couple of a cabaret pros like Nadler and Sullivan celebrate the apogee of American popular song.