If you’re among the many, many Washingtonians who love good vocal and choral music, you can’t do better than to head on down to the Atlas Performing Arts Center to catch the Washington Savoyards’ great current offering, A Grand Night for Singing.
Conceived and put together by Walter Bobbie, this two-act, Tony-nominated (1994) musical revue is an immensely enjoyable homage to the genius of Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s anchored by some of the Broadway duo’s most popular songs. But much of its running time is dominated by lesser-known gems that genuinely deserve a fresh hearing.
Ably and freely directed by Kurt Boehm and backed up by a first-rate trio of musicians, the Savoyards’ five soloists—Maria Egler, Nick Lehan, Emily Levey, Scott Russell, and Dorea Schmidt—certainly know how to deliver the goods. Whether belting out solo numbers or joining together for duets, trios, quartets, or quintets, you couldn’t ask for a better cast.
There’s no plot to this show, but there’s a general motif: namely, that love and/or relationships are many-faceted things. As if to accentuate the point, each of the show’s two acts open with popular songs that cue in the imagination. Act I is introduced by the ensemble which sings a quirky, ever-morphing version of the “Carousel Waltz” which segues first to “So Far,” and next to the show’s title song, “It’s a Grand Night for Singing.” Act II sets the scene simply with “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”
Act I is dominated by mostly lively pieces, ranging from popular songs like “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Hello Young Lovers,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” “Hello Young Lovers,” and “Some Enchanted Evening.” Act II is somewhat more pensive and is dominated by lesser known but highly affecting songs.
High points in this production include virtually all the ensemble numbers, performed with an ease and grace that could induce even the most hard hearted audience member to come back for more.
But in addition, many of the solo spots are worthy of note. Nick Lehan is a delight in “Surrey” and “Love, Look Away,” and is also superb in his duet with Dorea Schmidt with whom he dances the night away in a quirky arrangement of “Shall We Dance?” (The King and I).
Maria Egler displays a surprising and impressive range of vocal characterizations in disparate songs ranging from the goofiness of the sexually precocious Ado Annie in “I Cain’t Say No” (Oklahoma!), to the adult romance of The King and I’s “Something Wonderful”.
Perhaps the best character actor in the ensemble, Emily Levey has fun with “Wonderful Guy” (South Pacific), becomes more winsome and pensive in “A Hundred Million Miracles” (Flower Drum Song), but then knocks it out of the park with her hyperkinetic, exuberant approach to “It’s Me,” a terrific song from the almost forgotten Me and Juliet. Adding to the impact, she’s joined by Nick Lehan and Scott Russell who help her power her way to the finale.
Dorea Schmidt does a marvelously humorous turn in “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” (from R&H’s lesser known Cinderella) but answers this a bit later with a passionate approach to the Carousel classic, “If I Loved You.”
Anchoring the bass end of the spectrum, Scott Russell seemed a bit less comfortable in the ensemble than the others. That said, he seemed warmer in the show’s second half in Oklahoma!’s “Beautiful Mornin,’” wringing all the bitter, sad, yet determined emotion out of Emile de Becque’s stirring lament, “This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific.
As fascinating and entertaining as the music is in this show, perhaps the biggest surprise is what’s going on under the musical hood. Fred Wells’ arrangements, which no doubt gave the original Broadway production its intense pulse and kick, are inspired, original, offbeat, and rarely what you’d expect.
“Wash That Man” (South Pacific) gives the song a puckish, ‘40s-‘50s Andrews Sisters-style arrangement. The “Carousel Waltz” opener is as exciting and jagged as the original is smooth and elegant. “Honey Bun,” Billis’ humorous tour de force in South Pacific, almost transforms itself into a full-blown jitterbug. “Shall We Dance?” is recast into a combo of polka and whirling dervish. And Emily Levey’s solo, “The Gentleman Is a Dope” (from the little-remembered Allegro), crackles with all the spunk and energy the original calls for.
The Wells arrangements, in addition to adding unexpected rhythmic spiciness, also introduce unusual and unexpected key signature and chord progressions, giving the production an almost modernist feel, a little spikiness, really, that evolves from excursions into dissonance and extended tonality. The arrangements, while never doing violence to the originals, add an interesting veneer of exoticism to music we thought was familiar.
But better yet is the fact that the Savoyards’ young music director, William Yanesh, seriously gets the whole thing—the spirit of the originals, and the occasionally acid-tipped edginess of the new arrangements. Along with his small ensemble, Yanesh, a superb, natural pianist and accompanist, seems to do a Vulcan mind-meld with this score, channeling multitudes of spirits into the performance and out to the audience.
Small ensembles like the Savoyards are frequently handicapped by their inability to afford larger orchestras for their productions. But here, the Savoyards’ trio, inspired by Mr. Yanesh, proved to be a major feature, not a bug. Whether by vice-like grip or cat-like tread, the Savoyards need to hold on to this guy as long as they can.
Great music, great singing, great arrangements, and a killer combo—what more could you want? The Washington Savoyards’ production of A Grand Night for Singing is a must-see. So give them a call. You have two more weeks remaining to take in this extraordinary and memorable production.
Washington Savoyard‘s production of A Grand Night for Singing runs thru May 6, 2012 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC.
A Grand Night for Singing
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Conceived by Walter Bobbie with arrangements by Fred Wells
Directed by Kurt Boehm
Musical direction by William Yanesh
Produced by Washington Savoyards
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes with intermission