(NOTE: Another catch-up review — in late May, I saw Do I Hear a Waltz?, Encores’ last show of the season.)
For as long as I can remember, I was a passionate collector of original cast albums. In practical terms, it meant I knew the all the songs for many shows for which I had only a nodding acquaintance with the plot. This could be perplexing — it would be years before I realized that Carousel and Brigadoon have principal characters played by dancers who are largely silent.
Do I Hear a Waltz?, a 1965 musical (hereafter DIHAW, for simplicity’s sake), by the one-time-only team of Richard Rodgers (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), was one such musical that I heard long before I saw it. I found the score a puzzling mix of styles, up and down in quality — but at its best, quite enjoyable. A few numbers I particularly liked: “Someone Woke Up,” the heroine’s entrance song, written for a voice halfway between Mary Martin and Ethel Merman; “What Do We Do? We Fly!,” a genuinely funny comedy ensemble piece; and “Moon in My Window,” a lovely trio for three female singers of different ages and voice types. (Much has been made of the incompatibility of Sondheim’s lyrics and Rodgers’ music, but I don’t hear it in most of the songs.)
In the case of DIHAW, I knew the story, too — or at least, I thought I did. I’d seen a production of The Time of the Cuckoo, Arthur Laurents’ play that he adapted himself for the musical. So I had the basic plot details — a middle-aged secretary from the midwest, single and fairly inexperienced in the ways of the world, goes to Venice in the hope of discovering a more sophisticated life (which includes a flirtation with a married Italian, Renato). For many years, a fantasy version of DIHAW played out in my head, using the score I knew, and filling it in from my memories of Laurents’ play.
Let me tell you, that show was a hell of a lot better than the one I saw at Encores.
Here’s what I discovered about DIHAW that wasn’t part of my imaginary version: Every guest in the pensione where Leona stays has trite, uninteresting back story. Jennifer, an insecure young wife, is a terrible snob, and Eddie, her husband, is a bore. And in a final, lethal blow to the show — Leona herself is sardonic but witless, and comes to life only when she’s given an expensive gift. (A running undercurrent in DIHAW — that women are mostly a hoard of succubae, out to get everything they can from men — unpleasantly echoes aspects of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro.)
In short, the show’s big question isn’t will Leona find love at last? — it’s why would anyone want to spend an evening with these people?
Even through the limited means of a recording, the original cast work their palpable charm on the material. Yet paradoxically, as seen in director Evan Cabnet’s awkward, joy-free staging, the show actually seems less dimensional in production. At Encores, Venice was suggested by the show’s backdrop, a wide vista overlooking a canal — but the magic of this romantic city was nowhere to be found.
The cast largely sank under the burden of attempting to defibrillate DIHAW. Playing Leona, Melissa Errico returned to Encores, where 20 years ago she scored a triumph in One Touch of Venus. The two decades since have been a mixed bag for her, including some less than stellar shows, and bouts of vocal trouble. It was good to hear her singing so well, her distinctive, soft-grained voice with its appealingly fast vibrato sounding largely untouched by time. But the role lies low for her — and in the spoken dialogue scenes, Errico’s acting had a peculiar archness, with odd, sing-song vocal inflections that seemed to channel Bette Davis in Now Voyager. Ultimately, she didn’t find a way to make Leona sympathetic, but I’m not sure anybody could.
Among the supporting cast, Karen Ziemba delivered, as always — though not a natural fit as a veteran Italian seductress, her charm and consummate professionalism carried the day. One appreciated her more with every scene; on the other hand, a self-consciously “funny” Sarah Stiles, playing a maid who speaks little English, wore out her welcome almost instantly. Sarah Hunt (Jennifer) and Claybourne Elder (a distractingly handsome Eddie) couldn’t do much with the dreary pair (again, I’m not sure anyone could). Two delightful character actors, Nancy Opel and Richard Poe, probably could have done something as an older couple — but someone (Cabnet, probably) turned them into walking clichés of American tourism (think guidebooks, cameras, shorts and brown socks).
Out of all this murk, Richard Troxell, playing Renato, Leona’s would-be paramour, emerged as the show’s bright light. Who knew that Troxell, familiar to opera-goers as a mid-weight tenor, has the acting chops of a leading man? His lived-in good looks are exactly right for Renato, and his sincerity and charisma melted the heart. He deserves better, by which I mean both that Renato should have a nicer lover than petty, prickly Leona — and Troxell has earned a better show than DIHAW.