Had enough of hysterical headlines, political food fights, troubles and turmoil? Take a breath, and spend an evening in the golden age of American musical theatre. Riverside’s production of “Some Enchanted Evening – The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein” contains no unpleasant surprises and plenty of balm for exhausted souls.
Rodgers had collaborated with Hart, and Hammerstein with Kern (producing the great “Show Boat”) before they turned to each other. The world and tastes have changed since the ‘40s and ‘50s, but the importance of such masterpieces as “Oklahoma!”, “The King and I”, “South Pacific”, “Carousel”, and “The Sound of Music” cannot be overestimated. (If I may return to my authentic voice for a moment, that last example is a victim of its own fame, being the “go to” piece for every amateur theatre group in the country. “Let’s put on ‘Sound of Music!’ is the heart-sinking cry that sends reviewers like me heading for the hills.)
Nevertheless, they broke new ground, influenced musical theatre generations ever after, and introduced songs that people seem to know without knowing how they know them.
A Rodgers and Hammerstein show carries the same unspoken seal of approval that the old Walt Disney studios once had: you could be sure you wouldn’t be assaulted or shocked and your children wouldn’t be subverted. Nowadays, that’s considered a drawback. But I digress.
Artistic director Patrick A’Hearn presents “Some Enchanted Evening” as the first of their summer fare, and like summer, it’s warm, mellow, and light. There are no dramatic swings from bright to dark, (this is R & H after all) and many of the casting and choreography choices were made to show the songs in a separate context from the musicals for which they were written.
For that reason, no order of songs was given in the program. That choice might please the anarchists In the audience, but for my purposes, I like to know whom to credit for an exceptional performance. But, alas.
Suffice it to say that the eight adults and six children of the youth ensemble were precisely cast for their vocal range and presence. An opening medley takes us from a jaunt in the “Surry with the Fringe on Top” to the tropical waves of “Bali Ha’i” and back to the Naval base where “There’s Nothin’ Like A Dame.”
One member of the cast who is always easy to spot is Kathy Halenda who, as the girl who is “sixteen, going on seventeen”, is a double-barreled hoot. And leave it to R & H to take an idea that is brimming with sexual promise – “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say ‘No’” – and turn it into a cornball piece of hayseed innocence. But that’s how they got away with it.
One of the show’s strengths is the variety of mood and tempo, jumping with abandon from one well-known musical to another but freely adding an outside spin. Solving “a problem like Maria” is removed from the convent and put to the three men of the ensemble where it takes on a much different look. Even more original and much more fun is “Honeybun” – and I won’t spoil it by telling you why.
“Shall We Dance?” Stephanie Wood’s choreography suits the friendly energy of this show and doesn’t overwhelm the performers.
“Carousel” is my hands-down favorite of the R & H canon, and so I looked forward to the beautiful duet “If I Loved You”. This is one place where it seemed that the tenderness and hesitancy of the song was sacrificed for the dominance of the baritone. Immediately following, and creating a clear narrative, was “Hello, Young Lovers”, and it made sense.
Though I don’t personally care for what strikes me as the vapid tune and lyrics of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, all is forgiven with the ensemble singing of the haunting “Edelweiss.” Equally beautiful is the finale piece “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, also from “Carousel.”
A five-piece musical ensemble plays center stage amidst Jennifer Taglieri’s scene design of three large hanging windows and a perfectly stunning painted backdrop complimented by Michael Jarett’s lighting.
Yes, sometimes Rodgers and Hammerstein WERE as corny as Kansas in August, but among diehard musical theatre fans, they’re still two of the country’s Favorite Things.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: “Some Enchanted Evening – The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein”
WHERE: Riverside Center for the Performing Arts
CALL: (540) 370-4300 or visit www.riversidedt.com.
Playing through July 16