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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Kathryn Crosby Is Delightful
in Jerome Kern’s Roberta

Also see Richard's review of Partition

The 42nd Street Moon Company is presenting the Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach’s melodic 1933 gem, Roberta, featuring the delightful Kathryn Crosby in the featured role of Madame Roberta. She is supported by an enjoyable cast of 42nd Street Moon favorites plus some new and talented singers on the Eureka Theatre Stage. The whole production is beautifully directed by Greg MacKellan.

Roberta opened at the New Amsterdam Theatre on November 18th, 1933 and ran for over 250 performances. The musical received mixed notices from the New York critics with the New York Times calling it a “handsome pleasure dome” and the New York Journal stating the musical was “lush romanticism.” The musical was especially popular here on the west coast and it ran for a very long time in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The legendary Fay Templeton, in one of her last roles, played Madame Roberta with a cast consisting of Sidney Greenstreet, George Murphy, Lyda Roberti, Tamara (who sang “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”) and a guy playing saxophone in the “California Collegians” named Fred MacMurray. There was also a new and rising young comedian playing the hero’s sidekick named Bob Hope (one critic thought he “would be more amusing in he were Fred Allen” and the New York Sun critic said that he had “anemic quips and he watch them collapse at his feet”).

Jerome Kern had planned Roberta as a semi-operetta along the lines of his previous hits like Cat and the Fiddle. However, what finally emerged was closer to a traditional musical comedy. The classic song “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” helped the popularity of the musical. The song was based on a radio commercial of the day, and Kern slowed down the melody to make it a lovely song that is still sung to this day by our leading divas. Lyrics such as “So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed” are somewhat archaic today but still pleasant to hear. Also, it is interesting to note that lyrics for the number “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” were written by Kern’s nephew Bernard Dougall, a budding song writer who thought that his uncle should jazz up the melodic score. Roberta was made into an RKO film in 1935 with Irene Dunn and Randolph Scott plus Astaire and Rodgers in one of their early triumphs. Later, MGM did a remake under the title “Lovely to Look At,” a big Technicolor musical with Howard Keel, Katherine Grayson, Ann Miller and Red Skelton.

Roberta
Kathryn Crosby, Steve Rhyne,
and Lesley Hamilton

Roberta is based on Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberto and the boy meets girl plot is indicative of those early '30s musicals. The show is set in Paris where John Kent (newcomer Jason Winfield), an all-American football player from Haverhill College, has just inherited a dress shop run by his Aunt Minnie (Kathryn Crosby). She trades under the business name of Roberta, who dresses the rich and famous of Europe.

Minnie dies shortly after John’s arrival and our hero proposes that Minnie’s attractive assistant Stephanie (Stephanie Rhodes) run the shop as his partner. A blooming romance is almost thwarted by the arrival of Sophie (Lane McKenna), John’s college flame. However, as in all '30s musicals, everything turns out well in the end. Roberta contains some of Kern's most luscious melodies, with such classics as “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “The Touch of Your Hand,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Yesterdays,” “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” and one of my favorites, “Clementina.”

Greg MacKellan has assembled a top notch singing cast with special guest star Kathryn Crosby playing Madame Roberta. Ms. Crosby is charming in the role and she reminds me of Lillian Gish - she is so soft and wonderful as the aunt. Her rendition of “Yesterdays” is sublime and poignant and she segues into the song so naturally. Newcomer Jason Winfield has that boy-next-door attitude about himself, and he makes a perfect All-American boy with a pleasurable voice to match. He is especially good in a duet with Steve Rhyne in “Lovely to Look At.” Rhyne returns to the 42nd Street Moon stage in the Bob Hope role of Huck. The one line zingers are strictly '30s stuff, and the singer seems to have difficulty getting use to the outdated lines. Steve is in especially good voice in the big fashion number when he sings “Lovely to Look At.”

Stephanie Rhodes repeats the role that she played seven years ago with the company and her voice is still bell clear and lovely. Rhoads sings the classic “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” so beautifully that you forget the standard plot of the musical. Lesley Hamilton makes a marvelous Countess Clementina Scharwenka with a wild Polish accent who delivers a no-holds-barred version of a vamp to end all vamps. She belts out “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” in showstopper fashion.

Lane McKenna makes a good “spoiled princess” and Catherine Sheldon, a 42nd St Moon regular, is excellent as the pushy mother. Bill Fahrner, who played Huck seven years ago, is now a White Russian doorman at the salon. He has put a little Romanian into the Russian accent, but it works. Fahrner's voice is still powerful in the rendition on “The Touch of Your Hand” with Ms. Rhoads. Richard Pardini, who is becoming a regular member, plays Lord Henry Delves and he gives the role its proper sophisticated touch. The Haverhill Collegians are good in harmony although the “Clementina” number does not work well when the young men try to imitate the celebrities of the day like Bing Crosby, Rudy Valley and Ethel Merman. It probably was a great number in the original production. However, I love the melody that one rarely hears now a days.

The costumes by Barbara Burge are excellent, featuring '30s high fashion dresses provided by Deborah Rush and “Fashions of Yesteryear.” As usual, Dave Dobrusky is excellent at the piano and this time he is accompanied by Autin Ku on violin and Steve Parker on reeds. Directed by Greg MacKellan, the musical flows smoothly from scene to scene.

Roberta runs thru May 18th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. Kathryn Crosby will not be performing between May 15 to May 18th. The role of Madame Roberta will be played by Chris Macomber the last week. For tickets call 415-978-2787 or visit www.42ndStMoon.org.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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