Do I Hear a Waltz?, an Encores! production at New York City Center.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Richard Rodgers, composing toward the end of his illustrious career, emerges as the real star of the Encores! mounting of Do I Hear a Waltz?, the 1965 musical which also features lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents.
That’s quite a heavyweight trio, but it’s Rodgers’s music – from its playfully ingratiating up-tempo comic numbers to its soaring ballads – that stands out. That music is gorgeously played by the 31-piece orchestra, conducted by Rob Berman, and happily to thrillingly sung by a cast headed by Melissa Errico and Richard Troxell.
When it comes to storytelling, the production has its missteps, but hearing the under-appreciated score achieve glorious dimension makes this revival eminently worthwhile.
The show is based on Laurents’ 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo, which was also the basis for David Lean’s 1955 film Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn.
The story centres on a lonely, rather uptight American woman, a secretary, Leona Samish (Errico), at last taking a vacation to the city of her dreams, Venice.
On a shopping expedition, she meets a store owner, Renato Di Rossi, and quickly afterwards, he shows up at the pensione where she is staying. He presents her with a goblet she had admired in the shop but did not buy because there was only one and she wanted a pair. He also promises to find another for her.
There’s an immediate attraction between the two, but it hits a bump when Leona discovers Renato is married with children. Thus, begins the battle between the constricting moral values ascribed to Americans and the free-thinking romanticism of the Europeans. Renato explains his marriage has grown cold but divorce is not possible, and wears down Leona’s resistance. But more troubles loom ahead, when certain possibly duplicitous actions by Renato come to light.
The culture clash is also counterpointed in the incipient affair between the older pensione owner Fioria (the always-welcome Karen Ziemba) and the young American painter Eddie (Claybourne Elder), who is staying at the pensione with his wife (Sarah Hunt).
How this all plays out to a bittersweet conclusion makes for an intriguing examination of both character and culture. Unfortunately, the conflict in this production, under the direction of Evan Cabnet, seems more schematic than emotionally-driven, and a large part of that may simply be miscasting.
Errico is a talented actress as well as an accomplished singer, but whatever her own chronological age, she is inherently too young, too pretty, too put-together to embody a convincing woman whose inner life is coming apart.
While Leona may not have officially reached the age of old maidenhood, we should feel that the affair with Renato could be a chance of the lifetime and perhaps her only one, if the story is to hit us with full poignancy. I couldn’t help thinking that Errico’s Leona could walk into Venice’s legendary Harry’s Bar and pick up any guy she wanted.
Also detracting from the reality of the piece is a broadness in the playing of some of the subsidiary characters: an elderly American tourist couple and the pensione’s languid maid. This tendency to overdo also affects somewhat the otherwise invaluable work of Ziemba.
And finally and crucially, Troxell, too, does not quite match up to the man suggested in Laurents’ script. Although Renato describes himself as “not the man of your dreams”, he makes it clear he is talking about not being nobility or some such elevated persona of social stature and money.
However, from the way others frequently gush about his “molto bello” aura, he obviously exerts a palpable sexual magnetism. Troxell comes across as a rather earnest but bedraggled shopkeeper. That is, until he starts to sing, and then the magic begins. And Rodgers’ melodies swell to their full beauty.
Troxell, a lyric tenor, imbues ‘Take the Moment’, the big ballad that closes Act I, with the breathtaking power of grand opera. Similarly, his Act II aria in which he tries to convince Leona to extend her time in Venice, simply entitled ’Stay’, ignites with the passion of a Pagliacci.
He also exudes genuine charm in his lighter numbers, such as ‘Someone Like You’, and a comic flair in ‘Bargaining’, in which he portrays the haggling between merchant and female customer, complete with falsetto.
It’s all similarly true of Errico – once she begins to sing any discomfort with her performance evaporates (except perhaps for the overwrought ‘Everybody Loves Leona’, cut from the original production but restored here). Her rendition of the title song, as lilting a waltz as any that Rodgers, a master of the form, ever turned out, is sheer pleasure. And her opening number, ‘Someone Woke Up’, vibrates with the joy of someone embarking on a new adventure, long dreamed of.
Among the show’s many other musical gems, there is the Act II opener, ‘Moon in My Window’, sung with individual choruses and then as a trio by Errico, Ziemba and Hunt, which ends in a shimmer of ethereal beauty.
Do I Hear a Waltz? comes to Encores! carrying a lot of baggage, mainly the well-documented conflicts in its creation between the young, up-and-coming, game-changing Sondheim and the ageing, classicist Rodgers, worried about a failing of his creative powers. Nevertheless and despite Sondheim’s mounds of putdowns about the show, his lyrics often tingle with genius and occasionally you can feel the sprightliness his work brought to Rodgers as well.
Summing up his feelings about the show in his book Finishing the Hat, Sondheim deems the piece a failure because there was no need to tell the story as a musical. “That story had been told perfectly well in The Time of the Cuckoo,” he writes. The musical, he asserts: “shouldn’t have been written in the first place.”
Not to quibble with Sondheim, but if Do I Hear a Waltz? had never been written, we would be bereft of a late and generous, valuable and delicious sampling of the great Rodgers way with a melody.
Readers may also be interested in:
American Psycho – Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York – Review.
Shuffle Along or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – Music Box Theatre, New York – Review.