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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
October 20, 1999. All rights reserved.
Review: `Do I Hear a Waltz?’
If you are in the mood for a heavy dose of bittersweet
sentimentality served on a bed of gooey melodies, then try "Do
I Hear A Waltz," at the George Street Playhouse. So what’s not
to like about a musical with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Stephen
Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents?
Evidently quite a bit according to the critics back in 1965, when
this musical opened on Broadway. At that time, the much-heralded collaboration
based on Laurents’ 1952 play, "The Time of the Cuckoo" (which
became the 1955 movie "Summertime", starring Katherine Hepburn),
garnered such inhospitable words from the press as "hardly memorable,"
"dry," and "the songs — even the title number —
are a pretty solemn lot." Oh yes, the words "charm" and
"occasionally amusing" were also used by the more charitable
critics who, in the final analysis, would concede only that the show
was good, but not good enough.
Now, why would the George Street Playhouse decide to stage a revival
of this not-fondly-remembered musical that had all but disappeared
from public view?
The answer is that Laurents was so impressed with the way David Saint
directed his play "Jolson Sings Again" at George Street last
season, that he let Saint persuade him to try his hand with the almost
forgotten "Do I Hear a Waltz?" Other than the idea to downsize
a musical that was already of modest scale, Saint must have thought
that with a little tinkering and editing this limp and tiresome work
would get a second life.
Was it worth the effort? Certainly not based on my viewing of the
reworked show. Notwithstanding the presumed re-editing, polishing,
and refining of the text done by Laurents, the literate considerations
of Sondheim’s lyrics (including some not previously heard), and the
pedigree and legacy of Rodgers (even at his nadir), "Do I Hear
A Waltz?" is irrefutably lifeless. For whatever it’s worth, the
musical is, at least, no worse than it used to be.
In fact, the only real life that surfaces in this otherwise poorly
cast and dubiously doctored resurrection comes from Penny Fuller in
the principal role of the irritating spinster Leona Samish. Except
for one red dress that clashes with her carrot-colored hair, Fuller
has been prettily attired in delicate pastels and floral prints designed
for romance and touring by Theoni V. Aldredge.
When our attention isn’t focused on Leona’s romantic
deficit, we can find some solace watching the coming of dawn, sunset,
and various other times of day as they cast their decided spell on
the lovely, walled and tiled Venetian pensione. Designers James Youmans
(setting) and Howard Binkley (lights) have done their job well.
Nevertheless, time has not healed the inherent blandness of the plot.
Still, who is so callous as not to be fitfully amused by this summertime
spree in Venice, in which Leona Samish, a self-centered, not very
likable, middle-aged American secretary is drawn into a brief romantic
affair with Renato Di Rossi (Charles Cioffi), a handsome, not very
prosperous, unhappily married shopkeeper with married children?
What interest there is in the sentimental story comes from the conflicted
feelings of a prudish woman torn between her defensive rigidity and
her repressed hunger for romance. Leona’s need for a man and her distrust
of all men is the only thing the musical has going for it. And it’s
not enough. That Renato has the arduous, yet tempting, task of seducing
the spinster, showing her a good time, and then saying goodbye makes
for a dose of reality, but it does not offset the acrid flavor of
Fuller’s lovely voice and her vigorously deployed stage presence prove
a real asset. In a production that is also populated with some rather
insecure and tentative performers, Fuller makes the cloying title
song (one of the worst ever written for a show, in my opinion) almost
pleasing. Those familiar with the score will be pleased to learn that
"Everybody Loves Leona," an acerbic and angry song for Leona
that was cut from the original show before it opened, has been given
another chance. It’s short, but it signals the kind of sharply abrasive
lyricism that was yet to come from the burgeoning Sondheim. Would
that Sondheim’s music could have infiltrated the other songs.
Lacking the kind of baritone voice that can make one swoon in the
rhapsodic ballad "Take the Moment," Cioffi compensates for
the strain of reaching for high notes by projecting warmth through
his mature good looks. As Fioria, the pensione’s dallying concierge,
Lynn Cohen is grievously miscast and sounds as if she learned to sing
from Hermione Gingold. However unimpressive an impression they make
as the young bickering married couple, our tolerance for Todd Gearhart
and Anna Belknap turns momentarily temperate with their snappy delivery
of the Sondheim-isms in "We’re Gonna Be All Right." Carla
Biano should be funny but isn’t as the chambermaid, Giovanna. Nicholas
Cutro’s endearing performance as the young Italian hustler is a formidable
cut above his elders.
The score, in the capable hands of musical director Sean Patrick Flahaven
and six musicians, has been orchestrated to create the feeling of
a small Italian street band. This helps. If "Do I Hear A Waltz"
does not prove to be the "wonderful, mystical, magical miracle,"
that Leona sings about, there is another sentiment expressed in song
that sums up my reaction. It’s called "No Capisco."
— Simon Saltzman
Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to $38. Through Sunday, November
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