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It’s easy to see why Stephen Sondheim disparagingly referred to his 1965 Broadway collaboration with composer Richard Rodgers and book writer Arthur Laurents as a “Why?” musical. As in, “Why was this material made into a musical in the first place?” Laurents‘ play, The Time of the Cuckoo (which also inspired David Lean’s 1955 film, Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn), about an American spinster who finds problematic love during a Venetian vacation, wouldn’t seem to lend itself readily to musicalization. Indeed, the result was a deeply flawed, uneven piece that ran for only 220 performances. But as the current Encores! production demonstrates, the rarely seen show has many qualities that make it deserving of another look.
Melissa Errico plays the central role of Leona, a romance-starved secretary who has spent much of her savings on a trip to Venice, where she stays in a pensione run by the affable Signora Fioria (Karen Ziemba). Among the other guests are two American couples, the elderly McIllhennys (Richard Poe, Nancy Opel), whose strictly planned sightseeing itinerary allows them two free hours a day, and the youthful Yeagers, Eddie and Jennifer (Claybourne Elder, Sarah Hunt), whose marital problems are undermining vacation pleasures.
Determined to see as much of the glamorous city as she can with the help of her young guide Mauro (Zachary Infante), Leona also makes time for shopping. It’s during one of these excursions that she meets handsome antiques shopkeeper Renato (Richard Troxell), who sends to her hotel an 18th century goblet that she admired. He later asks her to join him for a concert at the Piazza San Marco, and although initially not interested, she eventually agrees. But it’s only days later, when he gives her the gift of a coveted garnet necklace, that her defenses crumble and romance blossoms.
Alas, it’s fraught with complications for the moralistic Leona, who discovers that Renato is in fact married with children. He protests that he and his wife have not loved each other for years and that divorce is not allowed in his country. But her anger boils over when possible financial chicanery on his part is revealed, leading her to a bitter, drunken diatribe that includes divulging a sexual liaison between Fioria and Eddie.
Rodgers and Sondheim famously didn’t get along in their sole collaboration, and the tension is mirrored in the score, which combines the former’s trademark lyricism with the latter’s caustic wit. There are some gorgeous ballads, including “Someone Like You” and “Take the Moment,” beautifully sung by veteran opera singer Troxell, as well as the joyous title song. But there are also such sardonically funny numbers as “This Week’s Americans,” “What Do We Do? We Fly?” and “No Understand.” None of it registers as among Rodgers or Sondheim’s best work, but even their second-tier material is superior to almost everyone else’s.
Still, the piece is most effective in the sharply written book portions, which, as staged by director Evan Cabnet, don’t successfully mesh with the musical sequences.
At first, the gorgeous Errico seems an unlikely choice for the role of a woman unable to find love, but the actress delivers an emotionally complex, haunting performance. The rest of the ensemble is equally fine: Troxell displays a rugged sexiness and swoony voice as the determined seducer; Ziemba is amusing as the trenchant innkeeper who, upon hearing Leona’s complaint that she thought she’d “hear a waltz” when she found love, advises, “You should have gone to Vienna”; and Sarah Stiles nearly steals the show with her deadpan comic turn as the English-challenged pensione employee whose deathly slow march to a ringing telephone is a comic highlight.
Under the musical direction of Rob Berman, the orchestra delivers the lush score with its usual brilliance, and choreographer Chase Brock has contributed several effective dance sequences.
It’s easy to see why Do I Hear a Waltz? failed originally and why it probably couldn’t sustain a commercial run now. But as always, one must be grateful to Encores! for providing the opportunity to reassess this flawed gem.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Claybourne Elder, Melissa Errico, Sarah Hunt, Zachary Infante, Nancy Opel, Richard Poe, Michael Rosen, Sarah Stiles, Richard Troxell, Karen Ziemba
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Arthur Laurents
Director/concert adaptation: Evan Cabnet
Set designer: Anna Louizos
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Music director: Rob Berman
Choreographer: Chase Brock
Presented by New York City Center Encores!
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