Monday, May 16, 2016

Do I Hear a Waltz?: An Encores! Misstep

Melissa Errico and Richard Troxell in Do I Hear a Waltz? (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

Stephen Sondheim’s only collaboration with Richard Rodgers was the 1965 musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, adapted by Arthur Laurents from his 1952 Broadway success The Time of the Cuckoo. Shirley Booth had starred in the play, as a lonely Midwesterner who comes to Venice on vacation in the hopes of enjoying a romantic fling, and Katharine Hepburn took over the role in David Lean’s 1955 film version, Summertime. Though Sondheim’s early musicals were partnerships with other composers – West Side Story with Leonard Bernstein and Gypsy with Jule Styne – he had established himself as a composer-lyricist with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Anyone Can Whistle at the beginning of the sixties. But Rodgers was, of course, the fabled writing partner of Sondheim’s adolescent mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, and Laurents was the man who wrote the book for Gypsy, so he agreed to the collaboration. But these two men of strikingly different sensibilities didn’t get along, and though the musical had a modest run it didn’t make much of an impression. (Neither did the leading lady, Elizabeth Allen.) And Sondheim has never thought much of it; in interviews and in his book Finishing the Hat he’s referred to it, quoting his friend, Rodgers’ daughter Mary a “why?” musical – as in “Why bother turning this material into a musical?”

Last weekend’s revival by Encores! marks the first time Do I Hear a Waltz? has been produced in New York since the original production. I saw the show as a teenager and know the cast album well, and I’ve always thought that the material was interesting and the score had considerable charm. Except for a couple of songs in No Strings, it’s the only late Rodgers score worth listening to; the ballads are especially lovely. Leona, the protagonist, thinks of herself as independent and resilient, but she’s febrile, with an all-or-nothing romantic fervor and fragile sensibilities; “Why is it I get so easily hurt?” she asks herself in one lyric, and the answer seems to be that she alternates between asking too much and not having the flexibility or the courage to accept what she’s offered if it’s not perfect. “Throw the dream away,” the Venetian shopkeeper Renato Di Rossi, who courts her, pleads in another song; he’s married, but in a union that has long since passed from passion into a state of mutual respect, and he doesn’t have money. The musical pits Leona’s Yankee puritanism with a more relaxed European attitude toward sex, embodied not only in Renato but also in Signora Fioria, the middle-aged proprietor of the pensione where Leona stays with two American couples. Signora Fioria seduces the younger of the two men, a painter named Eddie Yeager, whose marriage to the naïve, trusting Jennifer has begun to fray at the edges. When Leona spots Eddie going off in a gondola with the hotelkeeper, her moral shock is piled on top of her difficulties in taking Renato as he is, for good and for ill. The second act is overloaded: Laurents introduces one too many plot strands and the climactic scene teeters on the edge of melodrama, or perhaps goes over that edge, depending on your point of view and, I would think, the quality of the production.

I doubt that the Encores! version, directed by Evan Cabnet, made many converts for the musical. Except for the evocative set and lighting (by Anna Louizos and Ken Billington), the spirited performance of the music under Rob Berman’s direction, and the occasional bursts of Chase Brock’s choreography, executed by nine skillful dancers, it’s wrongheaded from start to finish. Cabnet’s direction is coarse at best, tone-deaf at worst, and except for Michael Rosen in the small role of Renato’s earnest son, I don’t think I would have cast any of the actors in these parts. (It’s hard to tell about Richard Poe and Nancy Opel as the older American tourists, the McIlhennys, since they are the particular victims of Paloma Young’s notably ugly costumes.) Melissa Errico, so good in the Encores! One Touch of Venus and Classic Stage Company’s production of Sondheim’s Passion, plays Leona as hard-edged and charmless, without an ounce of romantic spirit, even in the opening number, “Someone Woke Up,” which is supposed to be about her falling in love with Venice so unreservedly that she doesn’t even mind falling into the canal. Leona sings the title song – which was the score’s only take-away hit – in the middle of act two, when Renato presents her with a garnet necklace (she adores garnets); it’s about her finding, or thinking she’s found, the love she’s dreamed of. At the end of the show he admits to her that he was insulted that it took a material possession to evoke those feelings, but his distinction is finicky and unconvincing. (It’s one of the problems with the writing of the second act.) What’s so terrible about the ornamentation of romance? Candy and flowers have been known to melt hearts, and anyway he bought her the damn thing. But whatever your feelings about his criticism, Leona thinks what she’s feeling is real, yet Errico comments on the lyric in an almost Brechtian way, sending up her character’s expressions of romantic delight. She plays Leona as so unlikable that you can’t imagine why Renato is attracted to her in the first place.

Sarah Stiles, Claybourne Elder (seated), and Karen Ziemba in Do I Hear a Waltz? (Photo: Sara Krulwich)

The lyric tenor Richard Troxell, as Renato (a role originated by Sergio Franchi), provides gorgeous, full-bodied renderings of his three ballads – “Someone Like You,” “Take the Moment” and “Stay.” (He hasn’t mastered the tricky novelty number “Bargaining,” where Renato teaches Leona how to shop in Italy, playing the roles of both a male shopkeeper and a female customer.) It’s his acting that isn’t very good, especially his physical acting; he doesn’t know what to do with his body and he keeps thrusting his hands awkwardly into his pockets. Karen Ziemba, whom I’ve admired in so many musicals, is miscast as Signora Fioria; for all her wonderful qualities, she’s neither continental nor a seductress. (She would have made a marvelous Leona twenty years ago.) Sarah Stiles isn’t much good as the indolent maid Giovanna, but it’s hard to know what to do with this character, who never rises above the level of a running gag. Zachary Infante, who plays Leona’s eager guide Mauro, looks to be in his early twenties; the part is written for a little boy, and with a young man playing it, Leona’s exchanges with him don’t make sense.

Claybourne Elder shies away from playing Eddie Yeager as too cynical or impatient, but he doesn’t make any other strong choices either, and Sarah Hunt mutes Jennifer’s naiveté. Laurents may not be at his best with these characters, but he does have an idea here, and the casting scuttles any chance that it might have worked. To exacerbate the problem, this production replaces the Broadway lyric of the Yeagers’ duet “We’re Gonna Be All Right” – in which they attempt to patch up their latest quarrel – with the one Sondheim wrote that Rodgers refused to use. Sondheim diehards know it; it was performed by Laurence Guittard and Teri Ralston in the 1973 Sondheim: A Musical Tribute. It’s a sardonic, brittle critique of the marital state that is so implausible coming from these two (especially Jennifer) that, apart from what must have been a personal revulsion on Rodgers’ part to this kind of songwriting, you can understand exactly why he made Sondheim rewrite it. It’s obscure enough and clever enough that the audience for the Encores! Do I Hear a Waltz? may have felt its inclusion was a bonus, but it’s so out of sync that it feels like an interpolation from some other show entirely – like Company or Follies, since it anticipates such Sondheim trademark numbers as “The Little Things You Do Together” and “Could I Leave You?” Hunt and especially Elder don’t seem to know what to do with it. Hunt has a beautiful voice, though, and her expressive lyric style finds its apogee in the trio she performs with Errico and Ziemba at the top of the second act, “Moon in My Window.” This is one of the songs that has always made me think that someone should revive Do I Hear a Waltz? Unfortunately, no one’s likely to try it again.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movie.

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