By the end of Saturday’s opening-night performance of “Witchcraft: The Jazz Magic of Cy Coleman” at the 92nd Street Y, anyone present could be forgiven for imagining that the clock had magically been turned back to 1965 or thereabouts. In a shimmering musical mirage, the bygone Manhattan night life of 50 years ago came into view.
Since Coleman’s death in 2004 there have been many tributes, but most have concentrated on his Broadway scores. “Witchcraft,” part of the 92nd Street Y’s venerable Lyrics and Lyricists series, focuses on his seldom-heard stand-alone pop songs, many of which are wittier and more refined than his brash, swinging show tunes. Coming out of the Cole Porter tradition, they revel in an urbanity that has all but disappeared from the pop landscape.
Billy Stritch, the singer, pianist, and arranger, hosted the show, which he wrote with Andy Propst, and he led a cast that included Debby Boone, La Tanya Hall, Nicolas King and Gabrielle Stravelli. Jay Leonhart played bass and Rick Montalbano, drums. Mr. Stritch is a vocal disciple of Mel Tormé and a pianistic descendant of Coleman, a keyboard prodigy who rebelled against classical music and became the Count Basie of lounge pianists before he began writing shows.
As the notes rippled out from under Mr. Stritch’s fingertips, lush harmonies flashed by like scenery glimpsed from the windows of a bullet train. He not only does it all but also makes it look easy. Always a polished, genial singer, he has grown more expressive. A high point of the evening was his emotion-choked rendition of “It Amazes Me,” with lyrics by Coleman’s greatest collaborator, Carolyn Leigh.
Several numbers featured machine-perfect four- and five-part vocal harmonies. Each guest had at least one outstanding solo. Ms. Stravelli infused the little-known torch song “A Moment of Madness” with fire. Ms. Hall brought a sultry, slow-burning intensity to “Why Try to Change Me Now?,” with lyrics by Joseph McCarthy Jr.
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Mr. King, who is only 25, polished “I Walk a Little Faster” to a high buff. Ms. Boone’s warmest moment was “Pink Taffeta Sample Size 10,” a song cut from “Sweet Charity.” The show’s comic standout was Mr. Leonhart’s rendition of a novelty about aardvarks with lyrics by Allan Sherman.
Not to sound nostalgic, but those were the days when the now-torn and tattered word “sophisticated” really meant something.
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