San Francisco Theater Review: DO I HEAR A WALTZ? (42nd Street Moon)

by Jim Allen on October 9, 2014

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

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DO I FEAR A WALTZ?

Emily Skinner in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZMusicals are generally “lost” for any one of a number of reasons: the libretto may be filled with once topical socio-political humor now meaningless to contemporary audiences; it’s too expensive to produce; the score may have gone out of fashion; or the show itself just doesn’t work. The latter is the case with Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), 42nd Street Moon’s 22nd season opener. This strange kettle of fish was, according to legend, the most miserable collaboration on record for composer Richard Rodgers, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents, mainly because of Rodgers’ intractability and insecurity, which poisoned the well beyond redemption. To quote Sondheim in Finishing the Hat: “What I hadn’t taken into consideration was [Rodgers’] corrosive conviction that his creative powers were failing, that the well had run dry…this manifested itself in his refusal to rewrite.”

Michael Rhone, Lucinda Hitchcock-Cone, Emily Skinner and Tyler Mckenna in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZ.42nd Street Moon, known for their productions of such “lost” musicals, should be praised for casting the marvelous Emily Skinner (Tony-nominated for Side Show) as Leona Hamish, the lonely, single American secretary who comes to Venice in search of an “experience” (romance perhaps?). Skinner’s acting is truthful, grounded, nuanced, and sensitive. Her unamplified voice is warm, heartfelt, and clear, and she connects with every lyric. Skinner alone is reason enough to attend.

Emily Skinner and Tyler McKenna in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZHowever, even with a few good performances, this production is surprisingly amateurish, with some actors who are no better than serviceable. It feels like Director Greg MacKellan was torn between a concert staged reading and a full out production and ended up with neither. His flat staging has actors consistently “cheating out” by standing at a 45-degree angle to the edge of the stage until a musical cue presents itself, whereupon he or she faces front and “delivers” the song. This annoying theatrical convention may be necessitated by the poor acoustics of the Eureka Theater, formerly a movie house, but the sound issues—especially problematic for the unseasoned actors, whose numerous lines of dialogue are rendered inaudible—are overcome beautifully by Skinner; her transitions from dialogue to singing are smooth and organic, with auditory differences virtually unnoticeable.

Stephanie Rhoads and Emily Skinner in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZDespite the set-in-concrete delivery of some of the unmemorable songs, a few performers emerged triumphant. As Signora Fioria, the owner of the Venice pensione where Leona is staying, Stephanie Rhoads is sexy and worldly wise here, if a bit too glamorous. Her lovely voice and flawless comic timing are on fine display, as well. Taylor Bartolucci, in the small role of Signora Fioria’s maid Giovanna, is a wonderful physical comedian and pretty much steals every scene she is in. Lucinda Hitchock Cone eked out some persuasive moments as Edith McInhenny, half of a middle-aged, middle-class American tourist couple. But Tyler McKenna, who certainly has the right look for Leona’s would-be paramour, Renato Di Rossi, lacks the requisite age, gravitas, and big, legit voice needed here.

Emily Skinner, Jonah Broscow, Abby Sammons and David Naughton in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZRodgers’ score is by no means a bellringer, occasionally agreeable but certainly short of world-shaking. While there are a few popular songs, like “We’re Gonna Be All Right” and the title ditty (aided in great part by Sondheim’s witty lyrics), there is very little indigenous to the locale or highly exciting anywhere. Another number “What Do We Do? We Fly!” manages to get the cast but not the story off the ground. But this isn’t the kind of show for big numbers. In fact, it is not a big one on any basis. It’s also virtually unrelieved by either dancing or comedy. The lack of choreography only serves to accentuate the overall somberness of the proceedings: “a sad little comedy with songs,” per Rodgers.

Emily Skinner in 42nd Street Moon's production of DO I HEAR A WALTZ.The libretto—based on Laurents’ own The Time of the Cuckoo (1952)—is an antiromantic turkey. Perhaps there is something to view that American women are very guileless about love, and Italian men very wise on the subject, but the topic as a plot basis appears to work out better in Henry James than in a musical play. As for the heroine, especially since she is played by Skinner, it seems odd that she is in a bit of difficulty acquiring  a man—which could be attributed to her loathsome habit of calling them “Cookie.”

There are many reasons why this is a “forgotten” musical. But if it’s going to be staged (and I champion any theater company which offers rarely produced musicals), it should be given more than a “community theater with a few professionals” treatment. Even the orchestra was excised for music director Dave Dobrusky’s straightforward piano accompaniment. This show made me want to waltz—right out the door.

photos by pwophoto.com

Do I Hear a Waltz?
42nd Street Moon
The Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St.
Wed and Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 6; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on October 19, 2014
for tickets, call (415) 255-8207 or visit www.42ndStMoon.org

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Anthony October 11, 2014 at 10:51 pm

Right on point. Certainly not a great show, or even a particularly good show, but Ms. Skinner is worth the price of admission, and it’s easy to see why she is a Tony nominee. I had no difficulty hearing anything. Call it community theater plus, and the plus makes it worthwhile.

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