Review: ‘Rags to Riches’ is full of love, passion and humor

Danny Gurwin’s tribute to Tony Bennett, Rags to Riches, currently at Farmers Alley Theatre in Kalamazoo, is a sweet love fest. Love for Tony Bennett, love for the music, especially those for which he’s known, and love for friendships that withstand the test of time.

In a single 45-minute set, accompanied by accomplished pianist, vocal coach and musical director Jamie Reed, and dressed in a well-tailored sharp suit and tie, Gurwin charmed the appreciative audience with stories about Bennett’s life and music interspersed with his own transmissions of key songs Bennett has made famous. He turned the Little Theatre’s classic proscenium into a classy nightclub with his impeccable lounge act.

Gurwin, a Michigan native and alumni of the University of Michigan’s Musical Theatre program, met Farmers Alley Artistic Director Jeremy Koch and his wife and fellow founding member of the theatre as well as its Educational Director, Denene Mulay Koch, 23 years ago while cutting their teeth at a Pennsylvania summer stock theater.

Danny and Jeremy’s feigned competition and jealousy as performers and as leading men, so to speak, for Denene, is a light-hearted thread throughout the show. But their love and abiding friendship is what emerges through in their banter and lovely duets: “As Time Goes By” with Jeremy, and “Embraceable You” with Denene. Both are crowd pleasers for the audience of largely long-time Farmers Alley patrons who know and love the Koches.

Gurwin has built a career in musical theater, as a performer on Broadway, and as head of the Musical Theatre program at the University of Arizona. His skillfulness in this art form is largely how he makes Bennett’s songs his own — and thankfully that’s exactly what he does. This is an homage to a great singer, not a performance in imitation of him.

By and large, Gurwin’s interpretation of the Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs, among others Bennett is known for singing, includes strong vibrato and expression in higher ranges as well as a big dramatic finish that shamelessly invites well-earned applause. He gives songs such as “Night and Day,” “Steppin’ Out With My Baby,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz” and “Remember” their own unique dramatic arcs and flourishes without upstaging the brilliance of the music or the man who made them famous.

He quotes advice Bennett received and experiences he had with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Count Basie and Bob Hope, with humor and grace. He’s a gifted storyteller, a generous performer, and he exudes warmth and reverence, whether singing, speaking or offering a little light soft shoe amid a song. Gurwin especially shines in romantic songs such as Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses.”

Which is appropriate for a show and a reunion if not homecoming of sorts, whose theme ultimately is love. And what a gift it is to be privy to such sweet passion.

Rags to Riches
Farmers Alley Theatre
May 19-20