A Grand Night for Singing
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2008
Theater Ten Ten's spring musical is A Grand Night for Singing, a revue of songs by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. When the source material for a show encompasses Oklahoma!, Carousel, State Fair, Allegro, South Pacific, The King and I, Me and Juliet, Pipe Dream, Cinderella, Flower Drum Song, and The Sound of Music, well...you know you're in good hands. Musical theatre enthusiasts are in for a treat.
Walter Bobbie is the conceiver of A Grand Night for Singing, and what he does here is present about three dozen R&H songs in what amounts to an extended cabaret format, pulling them out of their original contexts (and, sometimes, providing them with unexpected arrangements by Fred Wells; orchestrations are by Michael Gibson and Jonathan Tunick). The effect of this transposition is to focus us more squarely than usual on the words of Oscar Hammerstein II—instead of experiencing the cumulative beauty and power of a single integrated score, we are enthralled by a succession of theatre songs, each of which can feel like a little one-act musical all by itself.
This is, to quote the title of one of the songs performed here, something wonderful: Hammerstein's artfulness and craftsmanship as a lyricist are often underrated. So how lovely to be able to really hear some of the things he had to say about love and relationships (the main theme of the show). Consider, for example, the simple paradox expressed here—not sung (as originally intended) by Cinderella's Prince, but by a mature woman who is genuinely unsure of the depth of her infatuation:
Do I love you because you're beautiful?
Or are you beautiful because I love you?....
Are you the sweet invention of a lover's dream?
Or are you really as wonderful as you seem?
Or this much less familiar, but oh so wise, sentiment (from Allegro):
Starting out, so foolishly small,
It's hard to believe you will grow at all.
It's hard to believe that things like you
Can ever turn out to be men....
Food and sleep and plenty of soap,
Molasses and sulphur, and love, and hope,
The winters go by, the summers fly,
And all of a sudden you're men!
Certainly one of the key pleasures of A Grand Night for Singing is the chance to hear (without amplification!) so many R&H pieces that don't generally get trotted out on stage. The just-quoted "I Know It Can Happen Again" is one example; others include the exuberant "It's Me" from Me and Juliet, the charming "The Man I Used to Be" from Pipe Dream, and a host of tunes from Cinderella (including a particular favorite of mine, "Stepsisters' Lament"). Some songs very successfully are re-conceived, such as a very sweet "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" (from The Sound of Music) that is now about a vexing girlfriend instead of a troublesome postulant; others are given new life by virtue of the musical arrangement—"Honey Bun" (South Pacific) gets the Andrews Sisters treatment and feels quite reinvented.
And of course a lot of the great R&H classics are here, performed with simplicity and without frills or gimmicks: "Love, Look Away" from Flower Drum Song, "When the Children Are Asleep" from Carousel, and "Something Wonderful" from The King and I are just a few of the treasures you can expect in this (here's another R&H title) Lovely Night.
David Fuller has directed the show with a deft, light touch. The cast of five—Kerry Conte, Jessica Greeley, Judith Jarosz, Mishi Schueller, and David Tillistrand—all have moments to shine. Jarosz and Tillistrand, both familiar faces to Theater Ten Ten's audience, remind us what accomplished singing actors they both are; of the newcomers, Schueller's is an especially exciting addition with his pleasant tenor voice, leading-man good looks, and charming stage presence.
A Grand Night for Singing is a delightful dip into what is probably the greatest American songbook of them all. The riches of Rodgers & Hammerstein's oeuvre never cease to amaze me. How nice to savor some of their gifts to us in this effervescent show!