Los Angeles Theater Review: DO I HEAR A WALTZ? (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on November 16, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Musicals 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 is like a machine whose parts don’t work well as a whole no matter how you crank it. The latter is the case with Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965).

Kim Huber and Robert Yacko in Musical Theatre Guild's DO I HEAR A WALTZ. Photo by Janice Young.But for aficionados, it’s an important musical. It opened as one era of musical theater was ending and another beginning. The clash of two titans in stage composition—one with a foot stuck in the past, the other looking to the future—created a mess. It should never have happened, but somehow needed to happen for Stephen Sondheim to finally become Stephen Sondheim.

Which is precisely why I’m glad that Musical Theatre Guild presented this very rarely produced flop as part of their season. And I have seen MTG turn some real clunkers into gold. Unfortunately, sound glitches, casting issues, and Richard Israel’s spatially odd direction couldn’t turn this into an exciting night. I was hoping that MTG would try to sell this as an intimate chamber piece, but it went for a broad musical comedy feel, maybe to fill the large Alex Theatre in Glendale, to which the company has returned now that renovations are complete.

Marsha Kramer and Doug Carfrae in Musical Theatre Guild's DO I HEAR A WALTZ. Photo by Janice Young.For lyricist Sondheim, composer Richard Rodgers, and librettist Arthur Laurents, this strange kettle of fish was, according to legend, the most miserable collaboration on record mainly because of Rodgers’ intractability and insecurity, which poisoned the well beyond redemption. To quote Sondheim in his compilation of lyrics, commentary and anecdotes, 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.”

Indeed, this was Rodgers’ first score since the death of his longtime collaborator (without Hammerstein, however, Rodgers would help to bring The Sound of Music to the screen, released the same year that Waltz opened). But I’m not convinced the problem was a non-working relationship. The issue here is the source material, which never should have been musicalized—certainly not as a musical comedy; perhaps it may have worked as a dramatic chamber musical like Sondheim’s Passion (1994).

Based on Laurents’ own play, The Time of the Cuckoo (1952), we meet Leona Samish, a lonely, single American secretary who comes to Venice in search of an “experience” (that’s 1965 lingo for “hot Italian guy”). While staying at a pensione with two other couples, she meets a married middle-aged Italian shop owner named Renato, and they become infatuated with each other.

Ashley Fox Linton, Kim Huber and Eileen Barnett in Musical Theatre Guild's DO I HEAR A WALTZ. Photo by Janice Young.

Rodgers score is by no means a bell ringer, but there are a few great songs, such as “We’re Gonna Be All Right” and the title ditty—aided in great part by Sondheim’s witty lyrics (“Such lovely Blue Danube-y music; how can you be still?”). In addition, the score is better than much of today’s experimental dreck.

Zachary Ford and Ashley Fox Linton in Musical Theatre Guild's DO I HEAR A WALTZ. Photo by Janice Young.But construction issues abound. One terrific number, “What Do We Do? We Fly!,” manages to get the cast off the ground, but not the story. The seriousness in the anti-romantic libretto is virtually unrelieved by either comedy or dancing, which only serves to accentuate the overall somberness of the proceedings (“a sad little comedy with songs,” per Rodgers).

The always entrancing Kim Huber played Leona. While she was truthful, grounded, nuanced, and vulnerable, Huber’s voice sounded ethereal and thinner than normal, which really hurt the title song. Was it a miking issue? Eileen Barnett, who played Signora Fioria, the owner of the Venice pensione where Leona is staying, had a bum mike from the start. Fortunately, a handheld mic was brought to her halfway through her first number, but unfortunately, Barnett had neither the spark nor the sexual magnetism the role requires, and her Italian dialect was awful (and Barnett broke character when the mike was handed to her).

Jude Mason and Lindsey Alley in Musical Theatre Guild's DO I HEAR A WALTZ. Photo by Janice Young.Lindsey Alley, in the small role of Signora Fioria’s maid Giovanna, is a wonderful physical comedian and pretty much stole every scene she was in. Marsha Kramer and Doug Carfrae eked out some persuasive moments as the McInhennys, a middle-aged, middle-class American tourist couple. Two favorites, Zachary Ford and Ashley Fox Linton, played a troubled young couple from America, now living in Rome. They nailed the cutesy choreography assigned by John Todd, but their big number (the best in the show, “We’re Gonna Be All Right”) was so radically different in tone from their immediately preceding scene that the whole thing felt unbelievable. And it’s great to see Robert Yacko again, and he certainly has the right look for Leona’s would-be paramour, Renato Di Rossi, but he seemed like he was singing in an operetta. The entire cast was given such a wide playing area, it seems, that they couldn’t concentrate on selling a song (MTG productions have only 25 hours of rehearsal, but this is the rarity which actually looked like it).

It’s interesting to notice that MTG’s recent productions of other flops, Road Show and Bonnie and Clyde, were extraordinarily entertaining, oozing with professionalism. I would see both of those again, even knowing the problems in libretto and construction. But if someone asked me to see any production of Do I Hear A Waltz?, the show is so troubled that I would politely excuse myself and waltz right out the door.

photo by Janice Young

Do I Hear A Waltz?
Musical Theatre Guild
Alex Theatre
216 N. Brand Blvd. in Glendale
played on November 15, 2015
for future shows, call 818.848.6844 or visit MTG

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