BWW Review: Deidre Goodwin Directs/Choreographs Richard Rodgers' Ambitious And Daring NO STRINGS
"The sweetest sounds I'll ever hear are still inside my head.
The kindest words I'll ever know are waiting to be said."
That sentiment sung by the two leading players of the 1962 Broadway musical, NO STRINGS, weren't just character defining, but also could be taken as a public declaration of resilience by the man who wrote them, Richard Rodgers.
After spending two full careers as a Broadway composer, first writing jazzy smash hits with lyricist Lorenz Hart and then adapting more dramatic and character-driven styles for scores penned for classics with Oscar Hammerstein II, Rodgers, upon his second partner's passing, for the first time supplied the complete set of lyrics for a musical's score.
NO STRINGS was ambitious and daring in several ways. Much was made of the fact that Rodgers and playwright/screenwriter Samuel Taylor, who wrote the book, devised an original story for a leading character that was scripted to be played by a black woman, but who was not presented to the audience as a representation of her race; a unique proposition for 1960s Broadway.
Diahann Carroll won a Tony for playing Barbara Woodruff, a chic contemporary woman raised in Harlem who moved to Paris and become a leading fashion model; the luxuries of her career being financed by a wealthy white man. Richard Kiley was cast as Maine-born Pulitzer-winning novelist David Jordan, who came to Paris to get over a case of writer's block and has taken to hopping across Europe after learning the advantages of being a kept man.
They meet and develop a relationship, and the issues that arise have nothing to do with their racial differences until the question of getting married and moving back to America is brought up. Though never spoken directly, audiences were confronted with the reality that a black American woman enjoyed more freedom abroad than in her home country.
As indicated by the title, the lush orchestral sound audiences were familiar with in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals was replaced with a string-less seven-piece ensemble of brass, woodwind and percussion playing a score peppered with moments of minimalism and progressive jazz. The style is effectively replicated for three pieces by orchestrator Grant Strom for J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company's excellent production.
This is the sophomore effort by the new company dedicated to mounting small-scale productions of older Broadway musicals, following their impressive revival of SEESAW.
Director/choreographer Deidre Goodwin's elegant staging for a small space mixes period moments of contemporary ballet and modern jazz, even throwing in a tap dance for good measure.
As Barbara, Keyonna Knight sings with a lovely maturity in her understated portrayal of a woman enjoying her fame but still feeling her way through life. Cameron Bond's David, is a sexy crooner, humorously trying out his bad boy side after his buddy Mike (Patrick Connaghan) introduces him to the open purse strings of wealthy American Comfort O'Connell (funny and vivacious Anne Wechsler).
As with many older musicals, there are some bumps for contemporary audiences to endure. While Rodgers' music sports dynamic textures, his attempts at blasé sophistication can get a little clunky. ("Eager beavers always give a damn.") and the sentiment of David's lyric, "How sad to be a woman, / Women are stuck with men," is a bit too heteronormal for someone who's been bopping around with Europe's smart artistic set. But seen as a representation of its time, NO STRINGS remains a fine example of musical theatre's progressive nature and J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company presents it delightfully.