Theatre Review: Otterbein Ends Their 50th Summer Season with a Rapturous Grand Night for Singing
A Grand Night for Singing, a Tony-nominated revue of the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein, hits all the right notes in the production directed by David Hemlsey Caldwell that opened at Otterbein on Thursday to close their 50th summer season.
This revue of 30+ Rodgers and Hammerstein songs is structured like an outdoor cabaret. A four-piece band sits on a riser in front of a backdrop of stars, surrounded by a gorgeous, minimal set (courtesy of scenic designer Rob Johnson) with two benches flanking them as the actors under their own names sing these beautiful songs in various groupings. The first act is a dissection of the consuming frenzy of young love and lust, requited and otherwise. Jordan Thomas Wood – excellent throughout – finds a fierce intensity on “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” attacking that combination art-music and Western rhythm in a way I’ve never heard before that blew my hair back. It set the tone for how this performance handles some of what we’d think of as archaic or stilted language in these songs, it treats them with a knowing wink and simultaneously digs into the feelings that never quite go away underneath. My favorite example of this is Daria Redus’ hilarious, touching, and vibrant read of “I Cain’t Say No.”
This production of A Grand Night for Singing brilliantly accentuates the revue’s placing thematic material close to each other to look at the same feeling from different angles or follow it from hope to desolation or vice versa. Aubree Tally is the glue of the show throughout. She goes from a rich “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” and a lush “I Know It Can Happen Again” to duets that shimmer: gum-cracking, raised-eyebrow, gorgeous cynicism with Redus on “Stepsisters’ Lament;” slapstick comedy and the upending of expectations with Wood on “Shall We Dance.” Abigail Isom gets a righteous showcase, full of radiating energy, fury and realization all over her face and movements, on “The Gentleman is a Dope,” leading into the very funny pleading – of the same kind of dope – courtesy of Wood and Trey Plutnicki on “Don’t Marry Me.” This thread is knotted by my two favorite moments of the show – the women doing a lusty Boswell Sisters-style “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out-a My Hair” then Redus alone on a heartbreaking read of possibly the most beautiful Rodgers and Hammerstein song of all time, “If I Loved You.”
The second act loses some of that thematic thrust when it shoehorns in songs like “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” and “Kansas City” (the one terror of the future/look at those funny rednecks condescending moment from Oklahoma that always made me cringe) but it has some of the biggest highs of the show. Wood singing, with Redus and Isom’s harmonies, “But kinda sad I am to see the cad I am, dissolving like a sail on the sea,” on “The Man I Used to Be” is remarkable. Tally’s lush and quick, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” polished one of my favorite standards and reminded us all how it glimmers in the light.
As impressive as the cast’s rapid-fire switching of moods and feelings is, the band underpins and follows or anticipates their every move. Dennis Davenport’s piano and organ impeccably shade even the happiest song with a hint of melancholy and bring out those astonishing harmonies with Tom Regouski on reeds (particularly good on saxophone in the R&B numbers like “Honeybun” and “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out-a My Hair”) and Paul Baker on bass. Tomasz Jarzecki’s percussion had my jaw in my lap more than once. The cast and band achieve a perfect synergy on this always fertile material and find a way to, at least while they’re on stage, obliterate the many times we’ve all heard these songs and make them wholly their own. If you’re not someone who grew up with these songs, you’re in for a treat; if you, like me, did, you’re in for a series of delights.
A Grand Night for Singing runs through July 23 with 8pm showings on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit otterbein.edu