In a recent “Critic’s Notebook” column in the New York Times (6-13-01), author Steven Holden lamented the death of crooner Perry Como. The article suggested that when Como’s heyday of the 1950’s ended (with the rise of rock music), “…tranquility was out and speed was in.” Directed and Choreographed by Katy Brown, Barter Theater’s current Stage II production, “A Grand Night for Singing” challenges that notion, and proves that the musical tranquility of that earlier era still has an important place today. The current vehicle is a delicious revue of the songbook of composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein. Classics like “South Pacific,” “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” and “The King and I” are represented, along with less well-known shows like “I Do! I Do!.” The Thursday night performance I attended was a sell-out. (Call 540-628-3991 for reservations.)
The show opens with a simple, multi-layered, platform set (designer-D.R. Mullins), beneath a beautiful starry sky (lighting-Trevor Maynard). Adding to the sparkle is the crisp, onstage keyboard work of Musical Director, Renee Kemper. In the opening segment, the cast of five (Alena Gerst, Catherine Gray, John Hedges, Heidi Meyer, Wm. Perry Morgan), weave gently about the stage and offer a satin-smooth rendition of the title song. Morgan then joins Ms. Gerst for “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top.” Like many of the songs that would follow, the melodies alone are worth the trip; but the real relationships between characters are never quite developed in this revue, because its songs are out of the context of their original shows.
The ladies sing a humorous “Stepsister’s Lament” (from Cinderella) that is full of cute jealousies. The company’s “Cinderella” segments warmed me up for the Earth Kitt touring production I am scheduled to view in Houston next month. Hedges and Meyer follow with a “We Kiss In A Shadow” that is mellow as moonlight. The full cast does well with “Hello Young Lovers.” In this production there is no dialogue, and the songs are organized to suggest they are loosely connected in the way one song leads into the next. There are times when the idea works, and there are times when it does not. The cast has uniformly good voices, but there are no great voices. Never the less, the R & H music is so delicious it carries the day.
There is good comedic work from Gerst and Gray in “I Can’t Say No,” but the ladies need not cast themselves as sultry vixens to complete the task. Mr. Morgan leads a “Maria” that has both frenetic fun and a tender conclusion. Meyer does a warm and embracing “Do I Love You Because You’re Wonderful?” Hedges’ robust “Honey Bun” featured nice group counterpoint and some hilarious Mills Brothers-style vocal instrumentation. Ms. Gerst gets more laughs with “The Gentleman is a Dope,” and the laughter continues as the group does “Don’t Marry Me!” The gals do a nice “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” that was cute, but a bit heavy on the Hula choreography. Ms. Gray did an “If I Loved You” that seemed more severe than tender. In an amusing “Shall We Dance,” Morgan is alternately timid and bold. Act One ends with the solid sound of the ensemble in a pleasing “Some Enchanted Evening.”
In Act II, the previously casual costumes (designer- W. James Hill 3rd) are replaced by formal attire. Mr. Hedges provides an “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” that is respectable, but lacks the wonder and passion required. There were some forgettable tunes; and there were others, like “Kansas City,” in which Ms. Brown seems intent on choreographing every syllable to the point of tedium. Gray and Morgan do a sweet rendition of “When the Children Are Asleep.” Ms. Gerst shows more comic flair when she joins the gents for “It’s Me.” While Mr. Morgan performed a plaintive “Love Look Away,” I found myself mentally casting him as young Cornelius Hackel in “Hello Dolly.” I bet he would do nicely in the role, and sing a great “It Only Takes A Moment.”
Next, though she tends to emote a bit too much, Ms. Meyer sang a pleasing “Something Wonderful.” Hedges followed with a “This Nearly Was Mine” that was too intensely serious for this viewer. But the cast finale featured an exquisite “I Have Dreamed” with sweet five-part harmonies and gently fading counterpoints that brought the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.