With a collaboration producing some of the world’s most popular musicals, a retrospective of the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein was never going to be short of source material.
Walter Bobbie’s 1993 Broadway musical review A Grand Night for Singing takes a two-hour journey through some of the duo’s extensive back catalogue. Originally staged in cabaret format in New York, before transferring to the stage, the show never quite shakes off its cabaret roots and, therefore, at times seems uncomfortable on stage.
Appeal Theatre Group’s staging reinforces the cabaret nature, performed on an almost bare stage with performers in evening dress it’s more of a song recital than a musical.
Bobbie’s concept provides no linking narrative or theme, the show being a frame for the individual songs of R&H.
The concept does make for a slightly sterile evening, while one can admire the skill of the composer and lyricist, ripped out from their dramatic backgrounds it is difficult to emotionally engage with the numbers. This distancing isn’t helped by Fred Well’s musical arrangements. Some numbers Well has kept in their original show arrangements but others are bizarrely modified, often to damaging effect. The King And I’s classic waltz Shall We Dance transforms into a surreal tango while Oh What a Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma! ditches one of the simplest yet most effective orchestrations for an up-tempo mishmash of styles and rhythms. As the saying goes – if it aint broke…
Given the pedigree of the source material, sadly the production never matches the illustrious nature of the composers. There is often a misconception that the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein are simple melodies, easy to sing. Far from it, the songs have caught many professional actors out over the years with their soaring melodies and octave spanning range. It may have been a case of first night nerves but unfortunately the company often seemed off key during the performance. There were one or two notable exceptions; Jo Whelton’s It’s Me, a comedic gem, and Helen Waller’s Something Wonderful soars impressively but, overall, the onstage enthusiasm never overcomes the vocal wobbles.
Stripped of their dramatic concept, direction needs to be inventive to overcome that feeling of disconnection; however David Crane’s direction is too static to inject drama into the piece and the few moments of choreographic interlude seem half-hearted at best.
Appeal have shown their potential for staging top quality musicals earlier this year with their impressive performance of Songs For A New World and it’s therefore disappointing that this production falls flat.