There are three cool cats on stage (Mark Hartman on piano, Brad Russell on bass and Daniel Glass on drums) and I’m just chillin’ to their mellow sounds sitting table-side at Night Club 59E59. These suave hipsters are blowing some crazy riffs straight out of Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. I’m happily getting my groove on, decompressing from the stresses of news reports about CIA assessments, Donald Trump and Putin, and the demands for an investigation.
As I close my eyes flying with the tunes, the coolest of hip cats shows up. It’s His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley, the incarnation of the 1950s lounge singer/comedian whose work was the epitome of hip and who influenced many of the cool cats who followed: Dizzy Gillespie, Lenny Bruce, Frank Zappa, Robin Williams. I know I’m in for a rollicking night of hot jazz, fun and laughs. All will be right with the world under Lord Buckley’s tutelage and I will return to my life refreshed and empowered to face a new day remembering Lord Buckley’s love and his satiric slaps at current events and social constructs.
His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley, superbly directed by David Ellenstein at 59E59 Theaters, is set up as a smoky jazz nightclub (no real smoke). The comedic musical production is a marvelous night of entertainment with songs, stories, satiric take-offs, fractured and funny news reports (very refreshing), and jazz numbers with a twist. All are seamed together by this hippest of cats, Lord Buckley, the character is brilliantly incarnated from the original Lord Buckley – Richard Myrle Buckley – and enacted by Jake Broder, who lovingly gives a lesson to the audience about how to be hip, cool and chill during the unsettling times we live in.
Broder is ably accompanied by sidekick Michael Lanahan, who reads the hip news and also plays Abraham Lincoln in the second half. As Lincoln he reads the Gettysburg Address straight, an accompaniment to Broder’s hipster translation of the address. It is the hippest, coolest rendition of the famous speech you never heard, with bells and whistles that only the shimmering Broder could effect. Interestingly, the flavor of hipdom adds a completely different understanding to Lincoln’s meaning. And Broder sets up the segment by reviewing how and why Lincoln’s speech was short and mesmerizing, though at the time Lincoln never imagined the Gettysburg Address would resound for all eternity. Lincoln thought the speech was a failure.
Lanahan’s news briefs are sardonic, with a dollop of social criticism and a soupçon of good will and humor. In one “Hip News Emergency” we are told that there have been outbreaks of “squareness” throughout the nation and that “entrenchment in moronic points of view has become rife and intolerance is squaring up the edges of our society.” The news intermingles with stories and songs in the language of “cool” that target ongoing events in the media and upend them with positive injunctions to stay cool and “hip,” meaning loving. This is contrary to the usual bias and intent of media news reports, and an ironic reminder that if we wish to remain positive, we need to stop listening and watching “news” reports which are divisive or describe dire events and the worst human actions.
Indeed, at the outset, Lanahan’s news alert posits that there is a “deficit of love” in the country. A good part of the show’s stories told in Lord Buckley’s hoppin’ vernacular is devoted to inspiring us with the hippest examples of love to correct this “American crisis.” We are treated in the first segment to hipster retellings of A Christmas Carol, “The Pied Piper of Hamlin,” and a slice from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass about the diversity of the soul of America (“Song of Myself.)”
Lord Buckley’s seven-line recitation in hip becomes satiric genius. He completely misinterprets Whitman’s theme of the universality of man and womankind by portraying the narrator as an evil “full of himself” demagogue and fascist. The sardonic comparison to the president-elect is priceless.
“Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)/ I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric Yawp over the roofs of the world.”
Lord Buckley’s ridicule (in the forceful voice of the tyrant) puts a new spin on Whitman’s verse by pairing it with Buckley’s caricature of a dictator, revealing a horrific, antithetical meaning. The exaggerated contrast is at once brilliant, true and hysterical.
Lanahan has a fine voice, and croons with Broder, whose vocals are equally surprising and excellent. Broder reformulates the Ray Charles rendition of “Georgia on my Mind” with soulful vocal power, supplementing the song with asides of deep social commentary and sardonic phrasing exemplifying “sweet” Georgia’s history of racism. It is a perfect conclusion to the first act, reminding us of the country’s “deficit of love.” It also establishes Broder as a prodigious renaissance performer whose selection of stories all manifest the “roads to love” or what happens without love, spilling out their themes in the language of hip.
Throughout, Broder is a musical virtuoso attuned to the rhythms of jazz. He uses the beats to wrap cool words of classic love-themed stories in rhythmic phrases of hipdom. He accompanies himself on the piano as he sings “Georgia On My Mind” and at various times he joins the trio, sizzling hot jazz riffs on the saxophone.
In the second act Lord Buckley steps up the language of love and good will toward “cats” and “kitties” after being appointed Secretary of Love. How Broder segues into this segment and relates it to the current political situation is another stroke of genius. As Secretary of Love, Lord Buckley shares the stories of two of the hippest cats who ever lived, The Hip Ghan and the Nazz. You will just have to see the production to understand how Lord Buckley (the original Buckley blew these stories as well) conveys these aiming to uplift us and smooth the rough divide that threatens to engulf divided Americans whose differences separate us from a larger meaning of what it is to be an American. As Lord Buckley clarifies our purpose and encourages us to be like those he has exemplified as the hippest of cool cats, we leave with the remembrance of this wonderful production and the kiss on the cheek that he has blown to us.
His Royal Hipness Lord Buckley is at once ingenious and sterling in its innovative approach to dynamic musical theater, using echoes of the past to translate universal themes into the present. Broder and Lanahan are at the top of their game as musicians, and the show is exceptional in every respect, especially its currency and its themes of love and hope that hit one square between the eyes.
You can catch Lord Buckley and his fellows blowing their philosophy of mellow at 59E59 Theaters until 1 January 2017. The show is one hour and 45 minutes including intermission. Tickets are available online.