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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

A Grand Night for Singing

Also see Tim's reviews of Robin Hood and My Fair Lady

A Grand Night for Singing
Michael Philip O'Brien, Rebecca Robbins, Jennie Eisenhower and Fran Prisco
Photo by Mark Garvin.
Four performers with sensational voices and vibrant personalities enliven Rodgers and Hammerstein's A Grand Night for Singing, a revue at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio, celebrating Broadway's most successful songwriting team, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. That's good, because without these singers, this show might have fallen flat. Sure, the songs are classics, with beautiful melodies and ingenious lyrics—but there's not much substance to the show, and there are times the tone is so stodgy and reverential that it seems as if the cast is auditioning for a Lawrence Welk tribute band. But in the end, the talent and sincerity of the cast win out, making for a lovely evening.

A Grand Night for Singing has an unusual history. Conceived by director Walter Bobbie, it premiered at a Manhattan nightclub, and in late 1993 it transferred to Broadway, where it closed within two months. However, despite having a short run, the show later earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical.

Grand Night mixes some of Rodgers and Hammerstein's better-known songs (from hits like Carousel and The King and I) with lesser-known tunes (from unsuccessful shows like Pipe Dream and Allegro). A few songs are linked thematically—there's a series of songs about marriage, and another about children—but most of the songs are simply presented concert style. And the lack of a connection between most of the songs is a serious fault, and what makes it a trifle compared to Rodgers and Hammerstein's real musicals. It reminds one of Stephen Sondheim's observation that Hammerstein's greatest impact on the theatre was as a dramatist, not as a lyric writer. Here, shorn of a book, it's clear that in the theatre, even the best songs need something more. For instance, though Hammerstein's vernacular lyrics—using deliberately mispronounced words like "cain't," "git" and "idee"—sound charming in a production of Oklahoma!, they sound ridiculous when sung by actors in formal wear. Context is everything.

But the performances are the saving grace in the Walnut's production. There's Eisenhower's torchy, sensitive rendition of "If I Loved You," Robbins' gorgeous "Something Wonderful," O'Brien's easygoing "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" (which, on opening night, made delightful use of an audience member who was far from reluctant to be brought onstage), and Prisco's stirring "This Nearly Was Mine." There are also clever vocal arrangements by Fred Wells; some songs recall the jazzy harmony style of the Manhattan Transfer, while "Honey Bun" lets the singers imitate musical instruments in the style of The Mills Brothers. David Jenkins plays piano, providing some interesting transitions between songs.

Robert Kramer's set design fills the Independence Studio with overhead fans, smoky lighting, palm trees, nightclub-style tables for most of the audience to sit at, and windows covered by blinds. It's all evocative of the movie Casablanca, right down to the white tuxedos the men wear for most of the evening. (Mary Folino provides those tuxes, along with some elegant gowns for the ladies.) The actors often sing their songs while walking through the audience, adding a nice touch of warmth.

Directed smoothly by Bruce Lumpkin, with some creative choreography by Michelle Gaudette, A Grand Night for Singing is rather slight, and far from rousing. But the swell cast and the slick production make it an agreeable way to spend 100 minutes.

Rodgers and Hammerstein's A Grand Night for Singing runs through June 24, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $35 $50, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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