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Music in the Air

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Douglas Sills and Kristin Chenoweth.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When people think of operetta, Music in the Air is the kind of show that fills their imaginations. Not coincidentally, it's because of shows like Music in the Air that no one thinks about operetta much anymore. The new City Center Encores! production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's 1932 velvet-voiced romp from the German countryside to the big city which is playing through Sunday, is less a rediscovery of a long-lost treasure than a robust reminder of why it disappeared in the first place.

Although there are two searingly gorgeous ballads in "I Told Every Little Star" and "The Song Is You" and a handful of other lightly pleasant other tunes, this is not a score bursting with timeless classics a la the same team's Show Boat (from 1927). Hammerstein's book and lyrics spend as much time mocking the forms and perpetrators of operetta as embracing them, but get precious few laughs without a solid frame of reference. And innovations that must have seemed slyly brilliant 77 years ago - structuring each scene as a symphonic movement, rhythmic dialogue spoken over romantic underscoring, staging actions timed to fillips in Robert Russell Bennett's lush orchestrations - today play as coy, quaint, and hopelessly naïve.

That's why everyone daring to visit this creaking vortex of a theatrical time machine should be grateful to the appropriate higher power for corralling Kristin Chenoweth and Douglas Sills into this production. They are the only two things that resonate even moderately in the contemporary ear, and they do so with such lusty aplomb that they both tarnish and elevate everything surrounding them. When they speak and sing - and only when they speak and sing - they temporarily resuscitate this most moribund of all musical-theatre genres.

Playing the flailing Munich playwright Bruno Mahler and his live-in muse and soprano sidekick Frieda Hatzfeld, Sills and Chenoweth utilize all their sharply honed skills as viciously wonderful (if controlled) hams and even more superb singers. Dueling in a duets, arguing via arias, and battling despondency over their inveterate inability to communicate, they maintain simmering sexual and professional tensions by never leaving the stage of their romance. In fact, their restless rambunctiousness at building up and destroying each other for the sport of it promises the similar sparring of Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me, Kate (1948).

Chenoweth is unrecognizable beneath the dark wig and haughty manner that identify her as every bit the tempestuous Deutsche diva. Her voice is expectedly exquisite, but she's better served still by her flair for carefully carved comedy and the fiery instincts she employs to make Frieda revel in every blow she strikes against her beloved. The cutesy-Kewpie-doll shtick from many of her other roles is nowhere to be found here: Frieda is all woman, all monster, and all star - a combination deadly for Bruno, but thrilling for us.

A tornado on legs, Sills barrels through everyone as Bruno, giving him the urgency of a catapult about to let loose its payload. Because you never know when or how he'll explode, his tactics for surviving a simple conversation with Frieda, that tricky song he's been working on, or even just a ramshackle "tryout" for a prospective new star never cease to delight you or promote himself - something Sills approaches with the sort of punch-line-focused intensity that more stage comics today need, but almost none can be taught.

Sierra Boggess and Ryan Silverman.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Unfortunately, we're never allowed to focus on these sparkling city dwellers often enough, as Music in the Air is at least as concerned with its country characters. Edendorf music teacher Walther Lessing (Tom Alan Robbins) has written the melody for a surefire hit song with lyrics by the local schoolmaster, Karl Reder (Ryan Silverman), and plans to get it published. They're joined in their trip with the Edendorf Walking Club by Walther's daughter and Karl's not-so-secret crush Sieglinde (Sierra Boggess), whose appealing innocence and pretty singing are so entrancing that when they arrive in Munich...

The specifics of the plot are best treated as an elaborate collection of song cues (only slightly exacerbated by David Ives's adaptation); the individual aspects of who's angry with whom and why at any given moment are so rote as to be forgettable and pointless. It doesn't help that Silverman and Boggess are much the same way: Though they sing with lovely, rounded tones, they're so completely devoid of spark that they might as well vanish altogether whenever Sills or Chenoweth appears. They're eye and ear candy, not nourishment.

The rest of the production is, similarly, not interesting enough. Gary Griffin has proven himself among the best Encores! directors for eliciting something from nothing (his 2003 spin on The New Moon was remarkable, and his 2004 Pardon My English a hilarious revelation), but has staged this evening like a black-and-white beer commercial, utterly lacking both the magic and the fading stardust on which the story so firmly relies. The casting, too, blends outstanding talents (Walter Charles, Marni Nixon, and Dick Latessa) relegated to little more than walk-on parts with others (most notably Anne L. Nathan as Frieda's maid) who are simply miscast. Robbins is a paternal charmer as Walther, David Schramm is fine and funny as the put-upon music producer, and Robert Sella has some dynamic moments as Bruno's clear-eyed orchestra conductor. (The one fielding the Encores! Orchestra, Rob Berman, is just as good.)

But in most every aspect about this production, it feels like something crucial is missing. No, not the sets and costumes, though they always defined operetta to some degree, and John Lee Beatty and David C. Woolard's designs are fine for a concert. But, rather, inspiration. Hammerstein, already on his way to become musical theatre's most powerful guiding force, could successfully riff on operetta in 1932: He had helped create it in America (with The Desert Song and The New Moon) and he was watching its death throes from the frontlines. He could eulogize it and its eccentricities, and still say something worth hearing.

Now that this flavor of operetta has long since turned to dust, Music in the Air's original oomph is now nonexistent. It has become exactly what Hammerstein was rebelling against: disconnected from the emotional, intellectual, and political realities of the world in which we live. Luckily, Chenoweth and Sills know how to restate many of the show's lessons in our own modern vernacular. But whenever they're not onstage, something vital is lost in the translation.

Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert
Music in the Air

Through February 8
City Center Main Stage
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: NYCity Center

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