The musical, which ran just six months on Broadway in 1965, was largely in mothballs until the growing interest in Sondheim’s work brought it back into view in 1999. Bookwriter Arthur Laurents, who based the libretto on his play The Time of the Cuckoo, did a revision for the George Street Playhouse of New Brunswick, New Jersey in Fall of that year, and the Pasadena Playhouse in California did a high profile revival of that version starring Carol Lawrence, Anthony Crivello and Alyson Reed in 2001. The Chicago area is getting its first look at the revised piece in a handsome revival at the Theatre at the Center in nearby Munster. It features some of the area’s leading musical theater talents under the direction of longtime pro William Pullinsi. In other words, these folks are giving audiences a fair chance to judge the writing.
Do I Hear a Waltz? may be most significant as a passing of the torch from the Rodgers & Hammerstein era to the age of Sondheim. Its subject matter, concerning an unmarried American tourist who has a brief affair with a married Italian man in Venice, is darker and the questions it asks more difficult than was the norm for the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. Is it wrong for a man caught in a loveless marriage but prohibited by church and state to divorce to pursue an outside relationship? Is marital fidelity more of an ideal than an achievable state? Do we expect too much from our partners? The musical ends without a clear resolution to these questions, making the piece more akin to Sondheim’s later explorations of love and marriage, like Company and Passion, than to the likes of South Pacific. Might such dark subject matter have been ahead of its time? Was it too much to compete with the family-friendly, lighter shows of the mid-1960s such as Fiddler on the Roof, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly??
More likely the problem was and still is that Rodgers’ score, fine as it is, is not the right score for Do I Hear a Waltz? and its light tone fights the difficult and frightening ideas of the story. For example, late in act one, Eddie (Nicholas Foster), the young husband of the secondary couple, considers an extramarital dalliance, but in the context of a comedy number (“No Understand”), wherein an older and a younger woman compete for his attention. After he succumbs to this temptation, there’s a fairly intense exchange in which Eddie and his wife Jennifer (Amy J. Ludwigsen) share fears about the future of their marriage, but then they break into the up-tempo charm duet “We’re Gonna Be Alright,” as if they were Rolf and Liesl in The Sound of Music. Most of the score has a breezy feel (much like that of the title song) that seems more appropriate for a less-challenging romantic comedy.
Similarly, Laurents’ book (whether this production is using the original or the 1999 revision is not disclosed) seems to back off whenever things get too scary. Hearing the married local, Renato (Larry Adams), explain his situation to the American Leona Samish (Hollis Resnik), we’re not told enough to fully understand his pain and need. Instead, he launches into a nice but fairly traditional ballad (“Take the Moment”) to convince Leona to take a chance on him. Laurents also keeps Leona in safe territory, as a plucky, almost tough woman in the mold of a Nellie Forbush, and we don’t worry for her as much as we probably should.
On its own, the score is quite enjoyable in a Rodgers and Hammerstein sort of way. The cast, without exception, gives it a vocally strong performance, backed by an eight-piece orchestra conducted by Mark Elliott. Ms. Resnik is a likable and funny Leona and her always-impressive vocals are matched here by the gorgeous and powerful baritone of Larry Adams. Paula Scrofano, a Chicago-area leading lady with a stature in the local theater scene equal to Ms. Resnik’s, is charming and sexy as Fioria, owner of the pensione in which Leona is a guest. Solid, seemingly effortless comic support is also provided by Carol Kuykendall and David Perkovich as the older American tourist who are also guests at the pensione. Blond Nicholas Foster, who as wardrobed by costume designer Frances Maggio looks very musch like Troy Donahue in the 1950s, effectively shows his character’s self-centered nature and conflicted feelings toward his pretty, blonde wife (played the pretty, blonde Ludwigsen). Deanna Boyd shows a gift for pantomime as Giovanna, the non-English-speaking employee of the pensione.
Director Pullinsi deserves further credit not only for helping his cast master Italian accents, but also for avoiding any easy stereotyping of the old, the young or the Italians.
Robert C. Martin’s set design provides a gorgeous, dreamy Venice of bridges, stone and gondolas that avoids visual cliché. The gondolier’s pole so often used as an icon of Venice is stowed unobtrusively in a corner. Martin’s earth tones of green and brown are an effective contrast to the pastels of Ms. Maggio’s costumes. The only sour notes breaking the mood were difficulties with the sound system and clumsiness in some of the scenery moves.
According to his biographies, Sondheim initially had doubts that Laurents’ The Time of the Cuckoo was an appropriate piece for musicalization and he was reluctantly brought into the project by Laurents and Rodgers’ daughter Mary. Laurents and Richard Rodgers weren’t wrong in envisioning a musical romance set amidst the timeless beauty of Venice. If they had the same vision, they could have written one of the classics of the art form, instead of one of its footnotes.
Do I Hear a Waltz? runs through August 14th, 2005. Performances are on Wednesdays & Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. ($30.00); Fridays at 8:00 p.m. ($35.00); Saturdays at 2:30 p.m. ($30.00) and 8:00 p.m. ($35.00); and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. ($35.00). To purchase individual or group tickets call the Box Office at 219.836.3255 or Tickets.com at 800.511.1552. For more information on Theater at the Center, visit www.theatreatthecenter.org. PHOTO: Hollis Resnik and Larry Adams. Photo by Greg Kolack.