Monday, February 9, 2009

The Song Is Them

Music in the Air
Music by Jerome Kern
Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; adapted by David Ives
Directed by Gary Griffin
Choreographed by Michael Lichtefeld
Conducted by Rob Berman
Starring Kristen Chenoweth, Douglas Sills, Sierra Boggess, Ryan Silverman, Walter Charles, Marni Nixon, Dick Latessa, Robert Sella

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
Performances from February 5 to 8, 2009

Sills, Chenoweth & Boggess in
Music in the Air
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The Encores! mission–to bring back vintage musicals unheard and unseen in New York in awhile–certainly fills the bill with the Kern-Hammerstein Music in the Air, which ran for 342 performances on Broadway in 1932-3, then pretty much disappeared.

The likely culprit, Hammerstein’s book, is filled with clever quips and rhymed verse, but is nonetheless a weak cousin of what he did before and after (Show Boat, Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I). The plot can’t even hold a candle to the operetta libretti it’s apparently parodying. Dr. Walther Lessing and his pretty daughter Sieglinde live in the Bavarian village of Edendorf, as does dashing school master Karl Reder, who’s in love with her. When they travel to Munich to meet with music publisher Ernst Weber (and former Edendorf resident) to get a song of the doctor’s, with lyrics by Karl and vocals by Sieglinde, they enter a battle royal between playwright Bruno Mahler and his lover, prima donna Frieda Hatzfeld, who are at each others’ throats over the operetta he’s penning for her. In short order, Bruno falls for Sieglinde, Frieda grabs Karl in retaliation, the doctor bullies his way into the operetta’s rehearsals, and his daughter fails at becoming a star. Of course, everybody lives happily ever after.

Like many an opera with a convoluted libretto by Puccini or Verdi, Music in the Air is rescued by its composer. This isn’t Kern’s best score (Show Boat is, by far), but it has voluptuous orchestral passages, one indisputable classic (“The Song Is You”), a couple that are memorable (“I’m Alone,” “When the Spring Is in the Air”), and others that are tuneful and hummable. If only there weren’t so many reprises, which rarely allows the music to take flight: a lovely melody starts, ends, then returns as a tease later. Perhaps Kern had a surfeit of tunes and wanted to include them, however abbreviated they sound.

The Encores! staging is briskly directed by Gary Griffin without undue breathlessness; Michael Lichtefeld’s choreography is proficient; Rob Berman leads the Encores! Orchestra and Chorus in a luscious reading of Kern’s score; and the actors are, without exception, up to the task. Strong-voiced Walter Charles sings the showstopping “And Love Was Born” and veteran Marni Nixon has fun on “In Egern on the Tegern See.” The enormously charming Sierra Boggess–who alone makes The Little Mermaid watchable–sings beautifully as Sieglinde, and Ryan Silverman nearly keeps up with her as Karl.

As the comically quarreling lovers, Douglas Sills and Kristen Chenoweth are worth the price of admission. Sills is a charismatic actor with a sturdy baritone voice and the comic chops to keep up with Chenoweth, one of our musical theater treasures. It’s amazing that such a huge voice can emanate from that tiny frame–and it’s startlingly funny to see Sills towering over her as they embrace–and Chenoweth wraps her powerful soprano around “I’m Alone” and “I’m So Eager” along with spitting out Hammerstein’s wittiest lines like they’re so much chewing tobacco.

Best of all, Sills and Chenoweth don’t oversell the comedy, happily eschewing any broad hamming it up. Music in the Air is a slight but beguiling blast from the past.

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