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Review: Rodgers and Sondheim's DO I HEAR A WALTZ? Elegantly Presented By Encores!

Richard Rodgers was a 62-year-old composer trying to reinvent himself when Do I Hear a Waltz? opened on Broadway in the spring of 1965. After beginning his career with a 25-year collaboration with lyricist Lorenz Hart, writing over two dozen Broadway musicals, and following up with a partnership with bookwriter/lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II that led the emergence of musical theatre as a legitimate dramatic art form, he was suddenly, after Hammerstein's death in 1960, an American institution in search of his other half.

Richard Troxell, Melissa Errico and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Rodgers supplied his own lyrics for the 1962 hit NO STRINGS, but despite his surprisingly hip and experimental Tony-winning work, he preferred having a partner.

Meanwhile, young Stephen Sondheim was happy to not have a partner. After penning lyrics for WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY, he finally got a chance to add his own music for his next two projects, A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE.

Enter Arthur Laurents, who penned the books for WEST SIDE STORY, GYPSY and ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, directing the latter. He had been in the early stages of working with Rodgers and Hammerstein on a musical based on his popular 1953 play, THE TIME OF THE CUCKOO, about a single American woman looking for romance while vacationing in Venice, who partakes in a bittersweet romance with a married man. Divorce was not permitted in Italy until 1970, and a major theme of the play was how Italians would accept those whose marriages have lost their spark discreetly seeking love and fulfillment with affairs.

Looking back, Sondheim has been open about his opinion that the source material had nothing to gain by adding music and that he accepted Laurents and Rodgers' request that he come aboard as lyricist to honor his late mentor, Hammerstein. It was not a happy experience and the resulting musical, after mixed reviews, closed after a six-month run.

As is sometimes the case with short-lived Broadway musicals, the original cast album documents an enchanting collection of songs. While its giddy three-quarter time title song expresses the "magical, mystical miracle" of falling in love, the score is strongest in its realistic depictions of romantic disillusions, expressed most exquisitely in the doleful trio "Moon in My Window" and in the dramatic ballad of accepting the matters that make love uncomfortably complicated, "Stay." The end of a romance is achingly expressed by the forced cheerfulness and repressed formality of "Thank You so Much."

There is a good deal of humor as well, such as a group number about the annoyances of commercial air travel and a lesson on the art of bargaining when visiting Italian shops.

Sondheim and Laurents revisited Do I Hear a Waltz? for a 1999 production at New Jersey's George Street Playhouse. Rodgers had passed on twenty years earlier, but the two restored a pair of cut songs and substantial changes were made to the book. This revised version is what's on display this week at City Center Encores!'s very fine, elegantly presented concert production, directed by Evan Cabnet.

Well cast and skillfully handled as a knowing chamber piece, Do I Hear a Waltz? beautifully sets the growing archness of Sondheim's lyrics to Rodgers' traditionally romantic and spirited melodies to tell an intriguing story of a naïve American learning to accept dreams that don't come true.

Karen Ziemba
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Melissa Errico is a chipper bundle of buoyancy when first entering as the vacationing Leona Samish, an executive secretary who happily sings of being driven to tears by every wondrous Venetian sight she encounters. But this is a rather complicated acting role and she believably hints at Leona's insecurities and loneliness, qualities that lure her to quick solutions, while batting out self-depreciating quips that eventually evolve into an ugly drunken outburst.

Opera star Richard Troxell makes an impressive musical theatre debut as Renato, the married man who gingerly seduces Leona, looking for distraction from his own unhappy marriage, combining a strong, romantic tenor with weather-beaten charm.

Karen Ziemba is deliciously savvy as the guest house proprietress who has seen it all and done even more. Sarah Stiles is hilarious as her disinterested employee who speaks and sings with a deadpan growl.

Claybourne Elder and Sarah Hunt do excellent, understated work as an American couple trying to put up a good appearance while their marriage is crumbling. The upbeat duet the characters sing on the Broadway cast album, "We're Gonna Be All Right," is a watered-down version of the lyric Rodgers originally rejected. Elder and Hunt now sing the original lyric, embellished with more recent revisions. It's the sharpest, most Sondheim-like moment in the musical, drawing dark humor from the pair's attempts to get by the rough patches and strongly hinting at what's to come in his next musical, COMPANY.

Nancy Opel is sweetly silly and Richard Poe is gruffly likeable in their underwritten roles, playing an older American couple who seem quite happy with their love life.

There are no choral pieces in the score, but choreographer Chase Brock's dancers dress the stage handsomely with ballet moments. Ralph Burns' original orchestrations sound lovely as played by music director Rob Berman's thirty-one onstage musicians.

Whether it's because of the revisions of seventeen years ago or not, Encores!'s Do I Hear a Waltz? makes a strong case for the musical not being fully appreciated fifty-one years ago. True, there are plenty who do not go to musicals for lessons in shrugging off failed romances, but those seeking a mature and sober look at the perils of coupling will be singing its praises.

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