Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
For fans of Broadway's Golden Age, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II represent the highest echelon of achievement. Not that all their shows were successful. They created four smash long-running hits: Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, and Sound of Music. Carousel is much loved–Rodgers himself cited it as his favorite of their shows–but, though successful, was not quite an all-out smash like those first four. Flower Drum Song was a a modest success. Then there were three shows that flopped–Allegro, Me and Juliet and Pipe Dream–but even those contain some gorgeous songs, such as "A Fellow Needs a Girl," "No Other Love," and "Everybody's Got a Home But Me." The pair also wrote songs for the movie State Fair and the score for a made-for-television musical Cinderella, both of which finally made it to Broadway stages long after their two creators had died.
Some Enchanted Evening was devised by director-producer Jeffrey B. Moss as a way to bring some of these wonderful songs to the stage and honor the two artists who created them. Keep in mind, both men also had successful careers with other partners–Rodgers notably with Lorenz Hart, and Hammerstein with Jerome Kern (they wrote Show Boat, which can make a good case for being the first truly great work of musical theatre, among others). That makes the output of these two musical giants when they joined forces all the more astonishing. Rodgers was unmatched in composing music that could swell with optimism, touch the loneliest corner of your heart, or break into romantic abandon. Hammerstein wrote lyrics that speak authentically from the open heart of the characters for whom they were written, never putting a false word into any of their mouths, whether it be the King of Siam or a 19th century New England factory girl.
Moss's original concept was a two-act show, but Some Enchanted Evening has been condensed into a 70-minute one act, which seems a wise decision. In the confines of those seventy minutes, we hear thirty-three songs and snatches of perhaps a dozen others. The set is decorated as some kind of roadhouse or supper club. There is a bar, a stage with a mic stand, a couple of small round tables with chairs, and to one side, a row of frames that represent mirrors inside the ladies room (put to use when the show's three female cast members sing "I Enjoy Being a Girl"). To establish a Christmas feeling, the place has a Christmas tree and is decorated for the holidays.
The cast members are dressed in holiday apparel. Though it is not completely clear, the impression given is that the five characters (named for notable Rodgers and Hammerstein characters, Anna, Nellie, Julie, Billy and Will) work at this establishment as bartenders, servers, and/or entertainers. It is possible, though, that one or more of them are customers. The only spoken words are heard over an old radio, reporting through static that all roads are closed due to a massive snowstorm and advising all listeners to stay put wherever they are. Stranded together, the quintet has time to sit in different combinations at the tables and the bar to enjoy the Christmas tree and to sing.
The set up is not consistently employed, and I found myself at times distracted from the songs–which really is the only reason for the show to exist–trying to figure out relationships between these people as they interacted off to the side or even during a song, as when Will (Bradley Johnson) and Nellie (Deidre Cochran) express different hopes for their future, she singing "When the Children Are Asleep" (from Carousel), he singing "Don't Marry Me" (from Flower Drum Song, or when Julie (Julia Ennen) and Anna (Audrey Parker, covering for Serena Brook) pair off on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen"–not the familiar song as first sung in The Sound of Music, but the reprise in which the governess Maria (here Anna) is giving motherly advice to the sixteen year old Liesl (here Julie).
At other times a character climbs onto the stage and uses the mic to entertain the others, most effectively put to use by Parker's sassy delivery of "The Gentleman Is a Dope" from Allegro, this in retort to Johnson obnoxiously flirting with the women while singing "There Is Nothing Like a Dame." Still other times, performers stand on the lip of the proscenium and sing directly to the audience, as if the others were not even there. In this manner, Billy (Roland Hawkins II) delivers a stunning "This Nearly Was Mine" and Ennen does a beautiful take on "I Have Dreamed." Hawkins also does the famous "Soliloquy" to monumental effect–get him into a revival of Carousel, ASAP–though the piece is unfortunately somewhat abridged; well, there are thirty-two other songs to fit into those seventy minutes.
The entire show is accompanied by two on-stage pianists, Mindy Eschedor and Anthony J. Sofie, and Sofie is given a solo spot to play the lilting "Carousel Waltz." The costuming bears the marks of the holiday season, Nellie wearing a Christmas-plaid full skirt, Julie in a white dress trimmed with a red garland, and Anna in a sleek sequined sheath that signifies she is either there as a featured entertainer or perhaps as a customer coming from or going to a holiday party. The set provides a variety of spaces in which the wonderful songs can be presented, with Kyia Britts' lighting drawing our attention to the appropriate portion of the stage.
The five performers all do excellent work, with Roland Hawkins II and Deidre Cochran being the consistent standouts. Co-directors Allyson Richert and Ben Bakken clearly have guided their cast to not just sing these songs, but to bring out the meaning that Rodgers imbedded in his melody and Hammerstein in his lyrics. The one element I kept hoping for, but was left disappointed, was movement. There is nothing that could be considered dance in the show, where dance could bring another dimension to a number of the songs, and also enliven the proceedings. Even when "Shall We Dance?" is being sung, the two actors facing one another with hopeful looks upon their faces, and me waiting for them to break into that famously sweeping waltz around the stage, there is none to be had.
And yet, the songs win out. For those with a fondness for these indelible songs from great (and some not-so-great) musicals by two giants of the field, Some Enchanted Evening will be a delightful way to stoke those memories and hear them sung with heart by this talented cast. Sitting through Some Enchanted Evening led me to marvel at song after song after song, each one a treasure, and I found myself overwhelmed by the scope of the musical gifts this team has as their legacy, and grateful for the opportunity to revel in them.
Some Enchanted Evening runs through December 31, 2023, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. For tickets and information, please call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Concept by: Jeffrey B. Moss; Music: Richard Rodgers; Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein; Directors: Ben Bakken & Allyson Richert; Musical Supervision: Andy Kust; Costume Coordinator: Rane Oganowski; Lighting Design: Kyia Britts; Sound Design: Born Into Royalty; Production Manager and Props Design: Katie Phillips; Technical Director: Will Rafferty; Stage Manager: Samantha Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Aria Moon Smith.
Cast: Serena Brook (Anna), Deidre Cochran (Nellie), Julia Ennen (Julie), Roland Hawkins II (Billy), Bradley Johnson (Will), Audrey Parker (swing), Evan Tyler Wilson (swing).
Pianists: Mindy Eschedor and Anthony J. Sofie.