REVIEW: "A Grand Night for Singing" — Musical Theatre West @ Carpenter Performing Arts Center

Updated: Nov 16

"...A flashback to simpler times when Rodgers & Hammerstein made us believe anything was possible."

Musical Theatre West, southern California’s premier musical theater company in residence at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, presents Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “A Grand Night for Singing,” stunningly sung, and ingeniously staged. The show began performances on October 15th and will conclude its run October 31st — a terrific compendium of the R&H canon in a most splendiferous show of shows!


Premiering in 1993 with a book by Walter Bobbie and new arrangements by Fred Wells, “A Grand Night for Singing” includes at least one song from each of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s nine stage musicals, the film “State Fair” and the television production “Cinderella.” The musical went on to earn two Tony nominations, including Best Musical.


Among the songwriters who created standards for the American musical theater, the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein outdid even Irving Berlin in writing songs that assumed the status of secular hymns. With their semi-operatic 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 "Maria" have become part of the bedrock of American middle-class culture.


But it was 1943’s “Oklahoma!” that changed musical theater by bringing the book musical into its mature form, and the pair followed it with such classics as 1945’s “Carousel,” 1949’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific,” 1951’s “The King and I” and 1959’s “The Sound of Music.”


Framed by Kevin Clowe's elegant, starlit backdrop and accompanied by Musical Director Dennis Castellano’s septet (including himself on piano), Joan Almedilla (Broadway: “Miss Saigon”), Richard Bermudez (Welk Resort: “Kiss of the Spiderwoman”), Ovation nominated Kelley Dorney (MRE: “Singing in the Rain”), Jacob Haren (Broadway: “The Book of Mormon”) and Natalie Wachen (Off Broadway: “Rent”) sail past sentimental schmaltz to achieve performance grandeur and resplendence; the whole affair is made even better by the group having perfect chemistry, not to mention quasi absolute pitch.


Originally a cabaret revue at Rockefeller Plaza’s Rainbow and Stars, "A Grand Night for Singing" has been expanded into a smooth two-hour entertainment in which these five singers run through three dozen or so Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. Jason Graae, who directs the show, has given its Broadway elaboration an impressive fluidity that whisks the performers through various groupings that flow together as lighthearted extensions of one another. Sometimes the material is linked by contrasting lyrical themes, as when Natalie’s "A Wonderful Guy," that giddy ode to true love, is answered by the equally giddy confession of boy-craziness, "I Cain't Say No," sung by comedic ingenue Kelley. At other times, the director connects the songs with bits of theatrical business that suggest playful romantic rivalries among the performers.


The company opened with "The Sounds of the Earth" and “Carousel Waltz” in a medley of songs to come. Dressed in gorgeous gowns and formalwear and waltzing as they sang, the quintet looked and sounded like a Manhattan nightclub act. Joan Almedilla immediately caught listeners’ attention with “So Far” from “Allegro,” playing the part of a star and singing with clarity, force and emotion of love’s expectations.


It was a flashback to simpler times when Rodgers & Hammerstein made us believe that anything was possible. That love could happen to anyone: country bumpkins, strangers, and even Oklahomans. Leaving us with a syrupy sentimental aftertaste. With overload. If not for his genius, Hammerstein's lyrics, while brilliant in their simplicity, could have easily veered into banal. But with the help of Director Jason Graae, who was originally in the 1993 Broadway production by the way, he chooses Bobbie’s smart mix of ballads, comedy numbers and duets, and mixes them up a bit.


So, to highlight a few, we have a jazzy remix medley of “Oklahoma’s” “Many a New Day” with “South Pacific’s” "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair" performed Andrews Sisters-esque by Natalie, Joan and Kelley, and a guy (the earnest Jacob Haren) professing his love to "Maria" — a tune typically sung by a gaggle of frustrated nuns. The liveliest and most ingenious arrangements turned Richard and Company’s "Honey Bun" into a Modernaires-style swing tune with the cast playing invisible instruments, and transformed Joan, Kelley, Natalie and Jacob’s "Kansas City" quartet into an animated jazz number.


Aided by DJ Gray’s fluid staging and choreography, the five arresting actor-singers are adept at crafting characters and relationships within the span of a song, providing many magical moments in the show. The blend of pure entertainment, from the comic mop-head turn of “Shall We Dance” ("The King and I") to the girls and the boys playfully flirting with songs like “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” (“Oklahoma!”) to the comic “Don’t Marry Me,” (“Flower Drum Song”) to Richard soaring in “We Kiss in a Shadow” (“The King and I”) all added depth and variety to the revue.


Kelley nails “If I Loved You” (“Carousel”) toward the end of the first act, while Joan sweetly and transportingly sings the airy “It Might as Well Be Spring” from the “Cinderella” television special starring Julie Andrews. And Natalie comically sings the wistful “The Gentleman Is A Dope” (“Allegro”) to a convivial but worldly-wise audience.


Particularly ear caressing is the blending of the voices of Richard Bermudez and Jacob Haren as they sing the tender "All at Once You Love Her" from little-produced “Pipe Dream.” Just before that, we hear Natalie and Jacob in a most delightful tandem in the bouncy and tuneful "That's the Way It Happens" (R & H’s 1953 “Me and Juliet”).


Another great aspect of this revue is that it includes a number of obscure songs mixed in with the classics. Indeed, who would have imagined that the song "It's Me," from the lesser-known “Me and Juliet” would be presented and performed so marvelously by the trio of Kelley, Jacob and Richard that it becomes an all-out showstopper? This number is immediately followed by Jacob Haren again, breaking everyone's heart in the gorgeous ballad, "Love, Look Away." One of the greatest moments in the show, though, belongs to Richard Bermudez, who sings a full-throated and powerful "This Nearly Was Mine," just minutes before the show ended.


In addition to having the perfect cast, Director Graae (Broadway: “Falsettos,” “Stardust,” “Snoopy!”) is ably assisted by Scenic Designer Kevin Clowes, Costume Designer Jojo Siu, Choreographer DJ Gray and Lighting Designer Paul Black, whose collective work is ideal for this show. Sound Designer is Julie Ferrin, Production Stage Manager is Phil Gold, assisted by Avery James Evans. Production Manager is Matt Terzigni, Technical Director is Kevin Clowes and Company Manager is Bren Thor. Paul Garman is Executive Director and Producer. Understudies include Beka Burnham, Joanne Javien and Jeffrey Scott Parsons.


Featuring five performers with extraordinary voices and talent, the show presents the tunes like jewels on velvet. There is no attempt at cobbling some sort of story out of the collection (a la “Mama Mia”). Instead, the songs are delivered beautifully with a brief recollection of the shows they come from. And you are reminded of how beautiful the music is (by Rodgers) and how affecting the lyrics are (by Hammerstein), and how much intellectual and emotional territory these remarkable showtunes cover, especially when performed by a cast as talented as Musical Theatre West’s.


"A Grand Night for Singing" continues at Musical Theatre West @ Richard & Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center through October 31st. For tickets please visit www.musical.org


Chris Daniels

Arts & Entertainment Reviewer

The Show Report