Jeff Harnar: It’s De-Lovely: Jeff Harnar Sings Cole Porter

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Jeff Harnar

It’s De-Lovely: Jeff Harnar Sings Cole Porter

Birdland, NYC, March 11, 2024

Reviewed by Alix Cohen

Jeff Harnar
Photo: Gene Reed

To say Jeff Harnar has an affinity with Cole Porter’s songs doesn’t come close to recognizing the brio and virtuosity of his interpretation. As with Noël Coward, few performers “get” Porter. With perfectly enunciated and songs of urbane wit and ballads of rueful longing, Harnar delivered an indelible show. This program has been presented in several iterations since 1990, and Harnar has more fully inhabited the material over time. It would be hard to top this performance.

He took the the stage with energy on the high beam and opened with a playful “Let’s Do It” followed by “I’m Throwing a Ball Tonight.” An extremely clever verse—wry and apt and written by the performer himself— featured contemporary invitees such as Lady Gaga, Pussy Riot, and Motley Crue with their turn downs were posted on social media. Birdland’s savvy audience was so taken with Harnar’s renditions that they chuckled even though they were quite familiar with Porter’s lyrics, and they even completed a few dangling lines. Harnar’s pleasure was infectious. He told how while they were sailing ailing together while writing the musical Red, Hot and Blue he posits that its three collaborators gushed about “fresh mangosteen” (mango):  “It’s delightful,” said Porter; “delicious,” said Moss Hart, and you know what Monty Woolley said.  Inserting Kitty Carlisle Hart’s name was inserted into a lyric because she was present, and the outcome sounds like a New Yorker story. Harnar’s signature channeling of Jimmy Durante bubbled up several times.

A beautiful arrangement of “In the Still of the Night” featured a diffused piano, bowed bass, and the faintest cymbal. Harnar doesn’t just croon iconic ballads, he experiences them. They are invariably understated and lyric-driven, dialects of emotion arrive personally. He’s a man in thrall. “If Sammy Cahn wrote ‘I’m in Love,’ it would sound like this” he said jauntily repeating the phrase. “But Cole Porter writes: “I am dejected, I am depressed/Yet resurrected and sailing the crest.’” (from “I’m in Love”). The song morphs into a rousing mambo.

“You Do Something to Me,” an animated “Let’s Not Talk About Love,” and accompanied only by piano, a tremulous, sincerely sweet “Do I Love You?” were among “a small stampede of love songs” Harnar had sung at Carnegie Hall for Porter’s 100th birthday.”

“You’d Be So Easy to Love” conjured the sweep of chiffon above patent leather shoes. “Begin the Beguine” was a rhumba. “I happen to believe that Cole Porter’s lyrics are choreography enough,” Harnar said, showing his understanding of the blac-and-white art deco universe in which much of Porter’s work appeared and flourished.

Ritt Henn’s excellent bass conjured sinuous, slow-motion Bob Fosse movement in a marvelous arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Harnar savored the puzzle. Made sultry by Dan Gross’s spirited bongos, “Just One of Those Things” personified the madness of the era.

Thoroughly comme il faut, Harnar and Alex Rybeck’s duet version of “Well, Did You Evah?” was the on-ramp to a friendship medley; after 40 years, these two should know. The sequence was organic, and the transitions were seamless. Songs were spritzed, not stirred with affection. “I Happen to Like New York” was euphoric. If this had been a cartoon, Harnar would have burst and reassembled himself. In fact, it’s denouement was a rakish “Can Can” in which sparks flew.

The incomparable Alex Rybeck accompanied Harnar and collaborated splendid arrangements and light vocals. Ritt Henn and Dan Gross were both superb.

Just when we think sophistication had bitten the dust….

Alix Cohen

Alix Cohen’s writing began with poetry, segued into lyrics then took a commercial detour. She now authors pieces about culture/the arts, including reviews and features. A diehard proponent of cabaret, she’s also a theater aficionado, a voting member of Drama Desk, The Drama League and of The NY Press Club in addition to MAC. Currently, Alix writes for Cabaret Scenes, Theater Pizzazz and Woman Around Town. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine and Times Square Chronicles. Alix is the recipient of six New York Press Club Awards.