Review - Music In The Air: The Lullaby of Munich
Although operetta wasn't completely on its way out when Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II brought Music In The Air to Broadway in 1932, the popularity of the genre was indeed waning a bit as jazzy and witty scores by the likes of George and Ira Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter dominated the decade's theatre music. But the creators of Show Boat, just five years earlier, weren't done quite yet.
As co-librettist of Rose-Marie, The Desert Song and The New Moon, Hammerstein was a great success when it came to writing heroic, grandly romantic stories for composers like Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg but in 1931 Kern and librettist Otto Harbach knocked Gotham on its ear with The Cat And the Fiddle, an operetta about the romance between a Romanian opera composer and an American jazz baby, which was praised for having a realistic, contemporary story where songs grew naturally from the plot. The same qualities can be found in Music In The Air, where critics and audiences enjoyed the intimate reality (at least as intimate as you can get with a cast of 89) of its presentation of the story of a pair of rural Bavarian songwriters who head to the big city (Munich) to sell their sure-fire hit song and wind up involved in the volatile backstage world of operetta. The two settings gave Kern a chance to compose both sophisticated melodies and merry choral pieces and allowed Hammerstein the chance to lightly spoof the business that had brought him fame.
The Encores! concert staging of Music In The Air, directed by Gary Griffin, is the first major New York production of the show since its brief 1951 Broadway revival. Though David Ives plays his usual Encores! role of adapting the script, the score, along with its stately original orchestrations by the great Robert Russell Bennett, has been restored to its original 1931 form. While the sprightly "I've Told Every Little Star" and the elegant, "The Song Is You" are the score's evergreen hits, advanced admirers of musical theatre would also appreciate the extended sequences of incidental music that underscore book scenes and the unusual synchronized dialogue that opens act two, where characters speak in rhymed and unrhymed cadence.
While Encores! is certainly to be commended for choosing an obscure piece by two greats of the American musical, as if often the case with older musicals, the years have taken a bit of the shine off of the book. What was fresh and satirical in 1932 comes off a bit quaint, or worse, stale 76 years later. But a fine company, clever touches by Griffin and the luscious sound of Rob Berman's 28 piece orchestra help smooth out the rough patches.
Sierra Boggess, though playing the leading role, has the thankless task of having to tone down her vocal abilities in order to suit the character. She plays Sieglinde, the daughter of music teacher Walter (Tom Alan Robbins) and sweetheart of school master Karl (Ryan Silverman). When the two guys arrive in Munich to show their new song to music publisher Ernst (David Schramm), it's Sieglinde who attracts the attention of lothario operetta librettist Bruno (Doug Sills) who tries to make her the star of his new production to spite his tempestuous lover and leading lady, Frieda (Kristin Chenoweth). While Boggess sings with a pretty soprano and a sweetly innocent disposition, it's an important plot point that she not display the same exciting vocal chops as, say, someone good enough to originate the title role in a long running Broadway musical.
Thus the show is pretty much handed to Sills and Chenoweth, who are more than capable of providing star quality comedic dazzle. Sills hams it up appropriately as the handsome rake and sings "The Song Is You" with a thrillingly rich masculinity. Chenoweth, who can draw major laughs from the most mundane-seeming lines, lightly prances through her diva role, hitting wild cadenzas to uproarious effect when she's not singing with divine maturity. (I've been liking Kristin Chenoweth a lot more since she's started playing grownups.)
It's always good to see reliable character actors like Walter Charles, Gordon Stanley, Robert Sella and Anne L. Nathan, even when there isn't much for them to do. Dick Latessa can't have more than maybe a dozen lines playing a theatre owner but he squeezes big laughs out of every one. And it's great to hear the wonderful Marni Nixon lend her dignified soprano to a small featured role.
While Music In The Air may not be a top shelf entertainment for 2009, the restoration and performance of its score by top shelf professions is something to celebrate.