By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
It’s taken two years for the darkened stage of Tulane University’s Dixon Hall to be witness to the frenetic work of dozens of dedicated lovers of musical theatre, for the spotlights to find their marks and for the sounds of sweet music to fill that once empty space.
But, the long wait is finally over. Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane (SLT) came back last week, although the number of seats able to be sold was still significantly reduced.
Throughout the past decade and beyond, some of the most memorable SLT stagings have been directed by the dynamic and talented Diane Lala, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) during the academic year and a summertime and otherwise New Orleans resident the remainder of the year.
Lala assembled a cast of veteran performers who had previously graced previous SLT shows, among them Katie Howe, John Michael Haas, Kevin Murphy and Chase Kamata. Relative newcomers Rachel Looney and Eric Shawn, who also served as dance captain, completed the cast.
With “Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘A Grand Night for Singing,'” Lala and artistic director Michael McKelvey picked a beloved review show representative of SLT productions of the golden era of Broadway, which echoed the glory of its past.
The daunting task of taking this collection of songs from a variety of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows – most of which were genuine hits – and pairing them with choreography and movement that enhanced their presentation was left to Lala to realize from page to stage. She did not disappoint.
With no book, the songs and the arrangements became the driving mechanism that strung the selections together. Oftentimes a melody of eight bar from one show would invariably lead to a selection or a medley from another show. The power of the combined forces of Richard Rodgers’ musical composition and Oscar Hammerstein II’s assertive lyrics and biting social commentary might be considered as being the seventh member of the cast.
Musical arrangements by Fred Wells with orchestrations by Michael Gibson and Jonathan Tunick were brilliantly realized by Jefferson Turner, doing double duty as both conductor and player. By SLT standards, this was a small ensemble of players, but the sound which resonated throughout the performance hall was full and sumptuous, a credit to the talent of the musicians and Turner’s deft hand as musical director.
The medleys, quartets, trios and duets that formed the basis of the show moved in perfect union with the superbly rendered video projections designed by James Lanius.
These projections, coupled with Daniel Zimmer’s expert touch on lighting, gave audiences additional layers of appreciation for all the brilliant performances in “A Grand Night for Singing.”
The highlights of the show were many. Looney’s “It Might As Well Be Spring” was one that resonated long after the number was over in Act II. Haas and Howe’s lovely duet of “Surrey with the Fringe” early in Act I was also quite memorable. Kamata’s solo of “If I Loved You” proved to be another standout, while Murphy’s “My Little Girl” was one of his best of his contributions to the show.
But this was a show that spoke more about the nature of ensemble singing and the blending of many voices. Eric Shawn’s voice may be new on the scene, but his silvery voice blended so beautifully with the other veterans, that it is a good bet he will be a prominent feature in future SLT outings. His duet with Kamata on “Shall We Dance” not only displayed beautiful harmony, but showed off his agile dance moves.
Occasionally, a member of the cast took on a song intended for an opposite gender in the original cast. Murphy’s “Honey Bun,” specifically written for Mary Martin in “South Pacific,” was tackled with comedic brilliance and the rest of the company followed his lead and joined him in delightful song.
There were quite a number of popular Rodgers and Hammerstein melodies and songs that were not included in “A Grand Night for Singing” including “Do Re Mi” from “The Sound of Music, ” “Younger Than Springtime” from “South Pacific” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from “Flower Drum Song.” This just proves there may be enough remaining material to create “Another Grand Night for Singing” one day.
The next time SLT audiences will be able to enjoy another outing with music such as this won’t be until next season. The upcoming production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” to be jointly directed by Polanco Jones, Jr. and McKelvey with choreography by Lala promises to be massive, much more attuned to the rock era and just in time for the show’s 50th anniversary.
“It’s a Grand Night for Singing” completed its run from June 25-29 on the stage of Dixon Hall on the Tulane University campus and overseen by artistic director Michael McKelvey. Directed by Diane Lala it starred John Michael Haas, Katie Howe, Chase Kamata, Rachel Looney, Kevin Murphy and Eric Shawn. Musical director/conductor was Jefferson Turner. Sound designer was Theo Fogelman with lighting designs by Daniel Zimmer and video designs (projections) by James Lanius. Production manager was Michael Batt with India Mack serving as stage manager. Assistant stage manager was Lasharron Purvis.