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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

the affair.

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

Do I Hear a Waltz?, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $26 to $38. Through Sunday, November


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