Richard Rodgers, ladies and gentlemen! Those melodies! The abundance! This isn't news, of course, but maybe these days it needs to be a reminder. The King and I continues at the Beaumont with Marin Mazzie having replaced Kelli O'Hara as Anna Leonowens, but that, of course, is top-drawer Rodgers and Hammerstein.
The reminder this week is that even in lesser-known Rodgers -- towards the later end of his career and after the celebrated collaborations with Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart -- he still produced melodies that cascaded sumptuously from the stage.
We're talking here about his short-lived 1965 Do I Hear a Waltz?, now revived for the City Center Encores! series and bringing back Melissa Errico, who became a toast of the town when she did the One Touch of Venus revival in 1996.
Do I Hear a Waltz? is the one with lyrics by Rodgers family-friend Stephen Sondheim, whose arm doesn't need to be twisted in order to have him go on about how unhappy the brief partnership was. Apparently it was, although this reviewer wasn't there to corroborate.
What can be said is that the results are right up there with some of the best scores Rodgers helped turn out -- and Sondheim's agile words are also among his most devilishly clever. So it wasn't that element that led to the musical's short stay. (Maximizing the score's beauty is conductor Rob Berman and his 31-musician orchestra in which harpist Susan Jolles has plenty to do.)
Surely, it you ever want to hear a waltz this side of Johann Strauss, it's a Rodgers waltz you want, and the tuner's title song fills the bill, or as Sondheim pens, "Such lovely blue Danube-y music/How can you be/Still?" (That query might be in the Top 10 of Sondheim rhymes.)
The woman who wants to hear the waltz in order to know for certain that she's in love is American secretary Leona Samish, who began life when Arthur Laurents wrote The Time of the Cuckoo in 1952 with Shirley Booth in the leading role on Broadway and then again when David Lean turned it into the Katharine Hepburn 1955 starrer Summertime.
Since director David Lean adapted Laurents's play for the screen with H. E. Bates and an uncredited Donald Ogden Stewart, Laurents based his book for the musical strictly on his play, and it presents a tricky problem: focal character Leona Samish (Errico this time).
A prickly spinster, Leona arrives in Venice on a holiday for which she's scrimped over the years and during which she hopes to find a man at last. Defensively crisp, she has a habit of referring to friends and acquaintances as Cookie while she guards her beliefs in proper behavior. For instance, not unlike Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, she's wary of men either married or previously married. She recoils on learning that Renato Di Rossi (Richard Troxell), the antiques proprietor pursuing her, is married with children.
In the course of her stay at the Pensione Fioria, owned and operated by the worldly-wise Signora Fioria (Karen Ziemba), Leona begins to understand cultural relativity and thereby to change her mind about rigid precepts. She receives help from the other Americans staying at the pensione -- older McIlhenny couple (Richard Poe, Nancy Opel) and younger, rocky Yeager couple (Sarah Hunt, Claybourne Elder). She's not always helped by slow-moving pensione retainer Giovanna (always hilarious Sarah Stiles).
But even as she broadens her outlook, Leona remains, as Laurents has written her, a difficult character. Unless handled with extreme care, she's not very likable -- not far removed from the typical naïve American tourist expecting special treatment wherever she goes. Furthermore, the problem with Leona is compounded when she discovers a few additional hitches in Renato's courtship and insults not only him but just about everyone else within verbal-abuse distance.
Though singing as well as she always does, Errico hasn't found the key to making Leona sympathetic, appealing despite her spite. Her frequent spouting of "Cookie" doesn't quite work. (Check out how in the Lean film Hepburn makes it simultaneously annoying and charming.) When Errico plays the lengthy and volatile angry scene, she seems not to be fighting out of vulnerability, just harshly alienating.
Stating subsequently that his attraction to her has waned, Di Rossi comes across as simply expressing what any decent, self-respectful man would say. Troxell does it gracefully, which is the way he's proceeded from the outset. Actually, the lyric tenor has been an interesting presence. A portly fellow, he doesn't seem at his entrance the sort of figure instantly impressive as leading-man material. Then he starts to sing and out come melting notes to trigger memories of Ezio Pinza.
There's more than one reason for the reminiscing. Aside from the glancing similarity to plantation owner Emile de Becque even in name, Renato di Rossi sings the passionate love songs "Take the Moment" and "Stay," as de Becque sings "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine." Leona takes on the lighter songs, as Nellie did in "South Pacific."
(FYI: When Pinza was cast in South Pacific, Mary Martin let it be known she would sing no duets with him. Rodgers and Hammerstein obliged. Perhaps in preparing this score Rodgers kept that precedent in mind.)
A large part of the Do I Hear a Waltz? score is how Rodgers and Sondheim spread their goodies around. All the supporting players benefit. Ziemba sings about Signora Fioria's attitudes towards tourists from various countries. Stiles shines in a number about languages and incomprehensibility. There's a cynical ensemble number called "Perfectly Lovely Couple."
Perhaps best of all, Elder and Hunt as the fighting Yeagers intone "We're Gonna Be All Right," which can be regarded as a well-honed finger exercise for the songs the young Sally, Phyllis, Buddy and Ben chant in the "Loveland" section of Sondheim's Follies, where he parodies Rodgers and Hart.
Evan Cabnet directed amiably from his concert adaptation. (The Encores! actors still carry their script in black binders but in recent years they consult them less often.) Chase Brock choreographed, employing his lyrical dancers more as mood setters than as anything else.
Do I hear a waltz? You bet I do. I can't get it out of my head, nor do I want to. Not a bad thing to say about a musical, and something always said when Richard Rodgers is at hand.