I don’t think it’s any secret to anyone right now that the arts are in a period of financial crisis. We’ve all watched beloved organizations fold, some to combine efforts with other organizations in mergers, others to fade away, perhaps for good. And then there’s the rarest, third option — those that, amidst the crisis, find a way to rise again, changed and ready for the new normalcy of this economy while also showing a reverence to a storied past.
It is with great joy that I state that the Bucks County Playhouse is back, and with its production of “A Grand Night for Singing,” it gives us an unpretentious, ephemeral summer collection of polished standards, in a cheery marshmallow-puff format that is packed with charm.
I’m not going to rehash the epic saga of the Playhouse’s rise and fall here — the cover story in the July 3 issue of U.S. 1 will get you that information — but I will take a moment and extol the virtues of its reopening. Brand new, gas-lit lamps light the stroll from the street to the Playhouse. And, upon entering, you’ll find that the former shabby-chic nature of the theater (which erred, both charmingly and unfortunately, on the shabby side) has been replaced with a modern, comfortable array of seating, comfortably climate controlled and decorated in attractive shades of violet. And the theater’s fire curtain — a gorgeous, 1939 mural of the town — has been fully restored and installed, with colors as bright as if it had been painted yesterday. Bucks County Playhouse has stepped proudly into the 21st century, albeit with a proper respect and fondness for its roots.
With all that said, let’s get to the show. A revue of many songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s lesser-known works with a couple of the more famous standards thrown in, “A Grand Night for Singing” bowed on Broadway in 1993, where it garnered two Tony nominations and ran for a scant 52 performances. You’ll know many of these, even if you don’t know the shows in particular — there’s a little bit of the Carousel waltz, and “If I Loved You,” “Surrey with a Fringe On Top,” “Some Enchanted Evening” and other R&H heavyweights make an appearance alongside apocryphal tunes like “Honey Bun” and “Don’t Marry Me.” And it’s largely quite cute and affecting.
It is, admittedly, light on plot, but that’s sort of the point — you take in a show like this because you’re looking for a cloudlike array of cabaret performances, and that’s exactly what you get. Each of the five performers fills a “type,” with Courtney Balan as the comedienne, Erin Davie the ingenue, Kenita R. Miller the spitfire, Ron Bohmer the handsome leading man, and Greg Bosworth the “adorkable” comic relief. And the voices and performance talent of all five are substantial — if you want an evening of well-performed, hummable tunes, this is it.
Seasoned director Lonny Price is adept at bringing out the airy likability of the material, finding ways for the numbers to flow into one another in little moments of emotion without bowing to the tempting impulse to instill stronger threads of plot into the production. There’s no pretense to “A Grand Night for Singing,” no desire to sell it or wrap it up as something it’s not — it’s simply a revue of tunes you know, and familiar-sounding tunes that you aren’t yet acquainted with, delivered by a solid band and clean-cut, lovely cast.
Worth singling out is Kenita R. Miller, paradoxically the shortest and most potent of the cast. Her sense of humor and palpable flirtation with her castmates and the material at hand is really fun to watch, and she adds that imperceptible extra dimension of enjoyment to the numbers in which she’s featured. The second act features slightly less of her, and it’s noticeable in that the latter half of the evening feels a little adrift, compared to the tighter first segment.
As mentioned above, the facility’s renovations are welcome and beautiful — with, perhaps, one exception. The prior incarnation of the Playhouse was infamous for its lack of adequate restroom facilities. The new BCP has revised the tiny restroom in the lobby and added two at the back of the house — but it is not enough, and large lines cascaded into the aisles of the theater during intermission. It’s a little bit of an awkward setup, and I’d recommend timing your facilities usage before or after the show.
All in all, “A Grand Night for Singing” feels like a bit of a well-executed warm-up lap. It’s not quite a play, but it’s presented cleanly and clearly, as a nice little amuse-bouche of what we could come to expect in the near future. I’m very much looking forward to “Barefoot in the Park” later this summer, as a main-course offering of what’s in store for the future of this legendary theater.
A Grand Night for Singing, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, 215-862-2041. www.bcptheater.org. An evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest hits. Through July 29. $29 to $54. 8 p.m.