Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote 11 Broadway musicals; five remain among the most popular ever written. Rodgers and Hart wrote some three dozen. Rodgers and Sondheim wrote only one, which neither of them liked. Do I Hear A Waltz? is a perfect selection of the Encores! concert series at New York City Center.
The 1965 show is based on The Time of the Cuckoo, a play by Arthur Laurents that was also made into the 1955 movie Summertime staring Katherine Hepburn. It tells the story of a lonely American woman Leona Samish (Melissa Errico) who takes a trip to Venice, and falls for an Italian man Renato Di Rossi (Richard Troxell) – who, it turns out, is married with many children, launching a plot involving desire, deception and disillusion.
For different angles on love, we meet two American couples staying at the pensione owned by Signora Fioria (Karen Ziemba): the young couple Eddie and Jennifer Yeager (Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt) who are having trouble in their marriage, and the older McIlhennys (Richard Poe and Nancy Opel.)
“Do I Hear a Waltz was not a bad show, merely a dead one,” Sondheim writes in Finishing the Hat. It had no reason to exist as a musical, he writes. Now, who am I to contradict the master himself? But Sondheim has made clear that he feels it was a mistake to collaborate with Rodgers at all (which he did, he says, for all the wrong reasons — as a favor to the dying Hammerstein; to make money, etc.) , and that he hated the experience, largely because of the older man’s sour personality and inflexible approach. Is it fair to ask whether the unpleasant experience colors his assessment of what they produced?
The truth is, the late Rodgers score has some of his characteristically tuneful melodies, and the early Sondheim lyrics are characteristically clever. No, Do I Hear A Waltz? is neither South Pacific nor Company – though there are small echoes of each in its attitudes toward love. But the Encores production brings out the charm of this modest musical. Directed with verve by Evan Cabnet, this supposed “concert” version features Anna Louizos’ romantic set – an ancient stone wall; a backdrop of Venice that Ken Billington’s lighting turns shades of beautiful colors during sunset and offers twinkly lights at night — that is more elaborate than is usual for Encore productions (admittedly a low bar); Paloma Young spot-on costumes (look at what Leona’s wearing when she finally loosens up, and then the contrast the morning after); and Chase Brock’s vigorous choreography, which extends beyond the production numbers to subtle corner-of-your eye choreographed snuggling between anonymous couples off center stage.
The cast, mostly first-rate New York theater pros, each gets at least one number worthy of their talents. Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt sing a duet, “We’re Gonna Be All Right,” with lyrics that are so subversively cynical that Sondheim has recalled Rodgers becoming enraged, forcing him to rewrite them as more cheerful. Here those lyrics are restored, so in this song about a couple supposedly reassuring one another that they will survive the troubles in their marriage (“We’re just having a drought/Smile and sweat it out”) they wind up singing a series of lines about the later stages of an ideal happy couple:
Jennifer: She was once quite well-read
Eddie: He once was quite intellectual
Jennifer: She’s nice and sweet and dead
Eddie: He’s tall and ineffectual
Jennifer: Sometimes she drinks in bed,
Eddie: Sometimes he’s homosexual.
Both: But why be vicious?
They keep it out of sight! Good show!
They’re gonna be all right.
And so, we’re gonna be all right…..
Karen Ziemba as the hotelier is wry in an early Act I song, “This Week Americans,” a somewhat shocking put-down of every other nationality (“Middle class Parisians/Far more cheek than chic”), which meets its match with her late Act II song “Last Week, Americans” (“Wash and wear Americans/Charmlessly naïve….Thought they’d never leave.”)
Richard Troxell, who recently made his Met opera debut, shows off his luscious lyric tenor in the soaring song that ends Act I, “Take The Moment.”
Melissa Errico has been wowing audiences at City Center Encores since One Touch of Venus in 1996 (shortly after Encores began), playing a golden-voiced goddess. And (pardon me for gushing), she’s still a goddess, all the more for being able to portray a repressed American tourist. Her delicious rendition of the title song brings everything together: Rodgers’ sweeping melody with Sondheim’s lyrics that show the tentative flowering of a woman who doesn’t really believe her luck —
Do I hear a waltz?
Can it be?
Is it true?
Things are impossibly lyrical!
Is it me?
No it’s you!
– and the full orchestra, which as always takes up most of the stage, and lets us hear how musicals should be performed. No, Rodgers and Sondheim is not Rodgers and Hammerstein, but after the show, I heard more than one theatergoing whistling a happy tune on Seventh Avenue.
Do I Hear A Waltz? is on stage at New York City Center (131 W 55th St, New York, NY 10019, between Sixth and Seventh Ave.) through May 15. 2016.
Do I Hear a Waltz? Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Arthur Laurents
Based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents
Featuring The Encores! Orchestra
Choreography by Chase Brock
Music Director Rob Berman
Directed by Evan Cabnet, scenic design by Anna Louizos, costume design by Paloma Young, lighting design by Ken Billington, sound design by Scott Lehrer
Featuring Claybourne Elder, Melissa Errico, Sarah Hunt, Zachary Infante, Nancy Opel, Richard Poe, Michael Rosen, Sarah Stiles, Richard Troxell, Karen Ziemba, Kristine Bendul, Kristine Covillo, Jenny Laroche, Jennifer Locke, Nathan Madden, Skye Mattox, Devin Roberts, Manny Stark, and Alex Wong. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell