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Review: ‘Do I Hear a Waltz?’ at Encores! at City Center in NYC

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This vintage musical, now over 50 years old, was written by a team of masters of musical theatre. It is the perfect piece with which the Encores! series continues to fulfill its mandate, which is to resurrect musicals, particularly those that have been neglected, so that a new generation may examine and enjoy them. Do I Hear A Waltz? has impeccable credentials; a book by Arthur Laurents (based on  his play (The Time of the Cuckoo), a score by perhaps our greatest melodist (Richard Rodgers), and lyrics by a young Stephen Sondheim. It was directed by John Dexter, a hot-at-the-time import from Britain, and  though Sondheim was reluctant to do another musical simply as a lyricist, he accepted the job because his mentor and great friend had been Oscar Hammerstein II, whose death left Richard Rodgers in need of a lyricist.

Melissa Errico and the ensemble of the Encores! production of 'Do I Hear a Waltz?' Photo by Joan Marcus.

Melissa Errico and the ensemble of the Encores! production of ‘Do I Hear a Waltz?’ Photo by Joan Marcus.

The original production, which opened at the 46th St. Theatre (now named the Richard Rodgers!) was moderately received by the press and the public, and managed a respectable but unspectacular run of 220 performances. Its cast was comprised of some interesting names including Elizabeth Allen, Sergio Franchi, Carol Bruce, Stuart Damon, Julienne Marie, and Madeline Sherwood. None was a “box office star,” and the musical itself was dismissed as a near-miss. An interesting point, mentioned by Producer Jack Viertel at the post-matinee talkback of this Encores! series, is that the original production arrived at the exact midpoint (1965) of the 1960 opening of The Sound of Music, which ended the 20 year reign of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the 1970 opening of Company, which established Stephen Sondheim as their heir apparent, the innovative composer/lyricist who would move musicals into the “concept” area, the non-linear story which had more on its mind than romance.

Melissa Errico and Richard Troxell. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Melissa Errico and Richard Troxell. Photo by Joan Marcus.

This time out, under the astute direction of Evan Cabnet (making his debut at Encores!) and the choreography of Chase Brock, a perfect cast has allowed us to see this under-rated musical, to re-evaluate it, and to marvel at the cohesion it shows as it flows effortlessly to its honest and satisfying conclusion. This story of a secretary in mid-life, who holidays in Venice, hoping to find one totally happy making experience to enrich her colorless life, served the great Shirley Booth with one of her most satisfying vehicles when she appeared in the play version. It also served Katherine Hepburn in the film (Summertime) for it offered her a chance to leave the airy heiress roles and classical heroines with which she’d been identified, to sink her teeth into a more middle class  and contemporary character.

Melissa Errico plays that character (“Leona Samish”) at Encores! and she is a revelation. Early in her career, she became a major leading lady list by her work in My Fair Lady, High Society, Dracula, and many others. Now, having born three children, she returns to us, in her prime, with a voice of liquid velvet, the grace of an accomplished dancer, and the acting chops to give size and stature to Leona Samish, the lady who had to learn to like herself more than when she arrived at the Pensione Fioria in Venice. Richard Troxell plays opposite her as a local shop keeper, who opens her willing heart to the possibility of that “magical, marvelous miracle” she has been seeking all her life, only to find it shut tight once again when circumstance intervenes. His voice is pure and resonant, and the gentleman can act as well, so this central relationship is fully realized, and it’s quite glorious.

Karen Ziemba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Karen Ziemba. Photo by Joan Marcus.

In support, Encores! has once again found just the right people to breathe life into this lovely story. For starters, Karen Ziemba, whose work in Steel Pier, Contact, Bullets Over Broadwaty, and much more, has proven her worth as singer, dancer and actress, plays Signora Fioria, the owner of the pensione. Her attitude, her accent, her agile body, are all in tune with this Venetian woman of the world, who long ago stopped worrying about what she’d missed in life, and started enjoying each day as it arrived. She’s a very Italian version of Fraülein Schneider in Cabaret, who could also shrug off some of life’s annoyances with “So What?” She’s been served by Mr. Rodgers with tricky and alluring melodies, and by Mr. Sondheim with lyrics that tickle the ears.

Sarah Hunt and Claybourne Elder. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sarah Hunt and Claybourne Elder. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt play a young couple on their honeymoon, and a couple of middle aged American tourists named McIlhenny are equally well delivered by Richard Poe and Nancy Opel. Beautiful work by all four actors bring color and reality to these characters, all of whom I’ve met in my own travels.

Everything about this staged reading at City Center is better and  more interesting than the original version. John Dexter, the director back then, was not primarily known for his skill with musicals, and (yes, I saw it!)I found the show  stodgy and overblown. Elizabeth Allen, who played Leona, was lovely looking, and sang pleasantly, but she did not suggest a spinster who’d made wrong choices all her life. Rumors of dissension among the collaborators gave the whole event an aura of unpleasantness, and that hurt ticket sales as  well.  Evan Cabnet and Chase Brock have approached the material as a new work, and given it a fresh look and a top notch cast that makes it particularly welcome in these modern times, when melody and insight are often sacrificed for amplification and special effects. Scott Lehrer’s sound design is refreshing and helpful. There isn’t a lost lyric or a distorted voice in the large cast of excellent singers.

Unless this production moves to Broadway (and there are no rumors that it will) you won’t have a chance to see these talented people strutting their stuff, but we can at least hope that this superb revival will stimulate  other productions of this almost forgotten musical. Or it might get you thinking about a subscription to Encores! for it proves once again that the three revivals they offer each year are always among the richest experiences you’ll have in musical theatre. I’ve found that to be true for me, ever since they gave us Fioriello 26 years ago, a Pulitzer Prize winner that had also been neglected since its original successful run.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.

Do I Hear a Waltz? played from May 11-15, 2016 at Encores! at New York City Center – 130 West 56th Street, in New York City. For information on the 2017 season of Encores! go to their website.

LINK:
Do I Hear a Waltz: Encores! Encores! by Peter Filichia on Masterworks. Listen to the cast recording of the original Broadway cast.

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