Here's a nice irony: While last season's production of "Tommy" set pundits contemplating the new role rock will play in the musical theater, 1993 will probably be remembered as the year Rodgers and Hammerstein were rediscovered.
Not that they have ever fallen into obscurity. But any notion that the kind of musical theater they pioneered is now quaint has to be dispelled since the most eagerly awaited musical next spring is not some new work (alas, none are slated to open then) but "Carousel."
Add to that the recent opening of "Cinderella" at the City Opera and now the unassuming, but engaging, "A Grand Night for Singing!" - a revue based on their work, at the Roundabout Theatre - and the vitality of Rodgers and Hammerstein seems quite extraordinary.
"Grand Night" was first presented last spring - at Rainbow & Stars, as part of its ongoing series of tributes to theater composers.
I had mixed feelings about this revue, even when it was in that glamorous setting.
What seemed notable there - an adroit use of the limited space - doesn't matter here.
Why, for example, must the full-throated lyricism of these great songs be undercut by not very sophisticated comedy? ("Shall We Dance," for example, becomes a sight gag for the short Jason Graae and the tall Lynne Wintersteller.)
The numbers are staged and sung effectively if not imaginatively. Each of the performers gets at least one song in which to shine.
Tony Walton has designed some movable curtains, which will work if the Roundabout decides to import other revues.
Martin Pakledinaz' costumes reflect the blandness of the evening. (The women's dresses are smart but unexciting; the men's costumes seem drawn directly from a vintage J.C. Penney catalogue.)
The show suggests the sort of revue you'd see in the lounge of a cruise ship in the Caribbean. The effect is pleasurable if not exhilarating. In any case, you won't get seasick.
Everything's up to date with Rodgers and Hammerstein, they've gone about a far as they can go, the corn is as high as an elephant's eye and it is indeed a grand night, even a grand year, for singing.
For this 50th-anniversary of "Oklahoma!" the Rodgers and Hammerstein industry has moved into high gear, with books, a first New York production for their TV musical "Cinderella," CD reissues and even postage stamps.
Surprisingly, we have not so far seen a major revival of "Oklahoma!" or other R&H classics, or even an R&H rarity such as "Lute Song" or "Me and Juliet," although Nicholas Hytner's revisionist "Carousel" for Britain's Royal National Theater is around the corner, scheduled for Lincoln Center next spring.
Meanwhile, Broadway's legion of R&H devotees and addicts can content itself with, even feast itself upon the revue-style show conceived and directed by Walter Bobbie, Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Grand Night for Singing!" which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater.
It is a splendiferous show of songs, a terrific compendium: songs of love and loss, songs jaunty, songs cheeky, songs happy, songs sad, songs yearning, songs burning, songs familiar, songs virtually unknown, but song after song after song.
If this be corn it's the corn of cornucopia. It is fascinating how wonderfully these numbers stand up when strung together like assorted charms on a rich golden bracelet, some recalling places, some faces and some just fun for themselves alone.
The show - and four-fifths of the cast - started last spring in cabaret at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow & Stars, but has now been expanded, enriched and decked out with a spiffy setting by Tony Walton that somehow suggests some Platonic ideal of the way a nightclub should look but never does.
The selection by Bobbie - helped presumably by the musical director Fred Wells - seems unerring and apt, while the staging is impeccable. It takes its strength from the beguiling confidence of what amounts to a virtual lexicon of musical comedy gesture, movements, even grimaces, totally redolent of Broadway, Hollywood and, of course, R&H.
None of this would help if the cast were not R&H perfect. Victoria Clark (impish), Lynne Wintersteller (gracious), Jason Graae (irrepressible), and Martin Vidnovic (all the above) are joined by newcomer Alyson Reed (bubbling) and together they blend and meld, gamboling through the R&H musical comedy thesaurus.
This kind of retrospective lacks the shock of the new, and the depth and involvement that only a full-blown musical can offer. But with the songs to sing and the singers to sing them, who can say it's not "A Grand Night for Singing!"?
Among the songwriters who created standards for the American musical theater, the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein 2d outdid even Irving Berlin in writing songs that assumed the status of secular hymns. With their semioperatic melodies and chiseled-in-stone lyrics that give advice, preach optimism and impart adult wisdom, songs like "Some Enchanted Evening," "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "You'll Never Walk Alone" have become part of the bedrock of American middle-class culture. But their power-of-positive-thinking sentiments have also made them synonymous in some people's minds with a drippy "Father Knows Best" squareness.
"A Grand Night for Singing," the new revue of Rodgers and Hammerstein songs at the Roundabout Theater, is a studious attempt to revise that goody-goody image by minimizing it. Conspicuously absent are inspirational warhorses like "The Sound of Music," "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Missing too are the declamatory love ballads "People Will Say We're In Love," "No Other Love" and "Younger Than Springtime." Lesson songs like "My Favorite Things," "Getting to Know You" and "I Whistle a Happy Tune" are excluded. And when "Some Enchanted Evening," that most formal of Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads, rings down the first act, it is performed in a light, breezy arrangement for five intertwining voices.
Originally a cabaret show at Rainbow and Stars, "A Grand Night for Singing" has been expanded into a smooth two-hour entertainment in which five singers run through three dozen Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. Four of the revue's five original performers -- Victoria Clark, Jason Graae, Martin Vidnovic and Lynne Wintersteller -- have returned for the Broadway production. Karen Ziemba has been replaced by Alyson Reed. And Walter Bobbie, who directed the cabaret version, has given its Broadway elaboration an impressive fluidity that whisks the performers through various groupings with a minimum of stiffness and posturing.
In Mr. Bobbie's hands, the songs flow together in a sequence that treats them as lighthearted extensions of one another. Sometimes the material is linked by contrasting lyrical themes, as when "A Wonderful Guy," that giddy ode to true love, is answered by the equally giddy confession of boy-craziness, "I Cain't Say No." At other times, the director connects the songs with bits of theatrical business that suggest playful romantic rivalries among the performers.
The biggest crowd pleaser, "Shall We Dance?," is a spoof of ballroom dancing lessons in which Mr. Graae waltzes self-consciously with Ms. Wintersteller, who towers several inches over him. Throughout most of the show, Mr. Graae plays the genially mugging clown and cutup. But in one of the show's most dramatic moments, he turns suddenly serious for a poignant "Love Look Away." Mr. Vidnovic, by contrast, is every inch the traditionally heroic Rodgers and Hammerstein leading man. And his versions of "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin' " and "This Nearly Was Mine" ring with a booming authority and warmth.
Ms. Clark infuses "If I Loved You" with a surprising undercurrent of shy humor. Throughout the show, her air of gentle whimsicality effectively contrasts with Ms. Wintersteller's stately cool. Ms. Reed's nervous, hard-edged performances, unfortunately, fail to infuse the material with a personal touch.
Fred Wells's musical arrangements, orchestrated for five pieces by Michael Gibson and Jonathan Tunick, use a solo cello as the melodic grounding wire in concepts that veer from the semiclassical into the cautiously jazzy. The liveliest and most ingenious arrangements turn "Honey Bun" into a Modernaires-style swing tune and "Kansas City" into an animated jazz number.
"A Grand Night for Singing" is a solidly likable show with few peaks and few depressions. But it is so afraid to be seen as corny and square that it stints far too much on conveying good, old-fashioned sentiment. It may leave you humming its wonderful tunes, but it doesn't leave you with your heart singing.
"A Grand Night for Singing" is a perfectly chipper revue of songs from the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon and an ideal choice for the Roundabout's cozy second stage while more serious fare unfolds upstairs. Unfortunately, the Roundabout doesn't have a cozy second stage, and so "Grand Night," which ought to be dessert, is instead the main course. Such are the exigencies of non-profit producing these days that this import from the tony cabaret room Rainbow & Stars has been dolled up and transferred not to another commercial venue but to the Roundabout.
Well, subscribers probably won't complain. With 26 songs and four composite numbers, "Grand Night" covers every Rodgers & Hammerstein collaboration from "Oklahoma!" in 1943 to "The Sound of Music" 16 years later, and it's pretty swell. The theme, such as it is, is romance, the mood is always upbeat, and the quintet of singers -- three women and two men fluidly deployed by director Walter Bobbie -- is fine in both the solos and various combinations.
The highlights include "South Pacific's""I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" performed Andrews Sisters-style by Victoria Clark, Alyson Reed and Lynne Wintersteller; Clark's
"I Cain't Say No," from "Oklahoma!"; Wintersteller and Jason Graae's sultry "Shall We Dance?" from "The King and I"; Martin Vidnovic's "This Nearly Was Mine" from "South Pacific"; and the entire company in a gorgeous "Some Enchanted Evening" from "South Pacific" and a swinging "Kansas City" from "Oklahoma!"
Of course, "Grand Night" disconcertingly rips the songs out of context, but that's virtually a given with these programs, which tend to emphasize the style of performance over the substance of the material; in this, the show has much in common with last season's similarly polished but bloodless Stephen Sondheim revue "Putting It Together." The major victims here are two "South Pacific" songs, "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "Hello, Young Lovers," unless one counts all the darker songs left out because they don't fit the mold.
Given Tony Walton's simple, stylish navy-blue art deco setting and Natasha Katz's lovely lighting, the show is a pleasure to look at as well as to listen to. Michael Gibson and Jonathan Tunick's lively orchestrations are performed by a six-member ensemble. "A Grand Night for Singing" may be a trifle, but it's a trifle that includes some of the best musical theater songs ever written. It's hard to resist.