Is that the sound of a discordant collaboration between two of the great musical theater icons of the 2oth century? If you’re witnessing Do I Hear a Waltz? — currently being presented by New York City Encores! — the answer is yes.
Author Martin Gottfried (Sondheim, 1993) wrote, “If we are measured by what we survive, Do I Hear a Waltz? is Sondheim’s yardstick.”
The Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist himself wrote in Finishing the Hat, “Rodgers mistrusted any song whose measures didn’t add up to a multiple of four, or at least two. I would bring him the sketch of a lyric on music paper with a suggested rhythmic notation attached, and he wouldn’t even read it until he had counted the bars, usually by tapping on my sketch with a pencil in authoritarian skepticism; woe betide me if it turned out to be an odd number.”
That clarifies the occasionally clashing lyrics and melodies, though each finds its moments to shine throughout the score, but doesn’t explain Arthur Laurents’ odd book (based on his own play, The Time of the Cuckoo. The plot follows spinster schoolteacher Leona Samish (Melissa Errico) as she ventures to Venice on a solo vacation and finds herself having a brief affair with a married man, Renanto Di Rossi (Richard Troxell). Fellow guests Eddie Yeager (Claybourne Elder) and his wife Jennifer (Sarah Hunt) are having their own marital problems, which are exacerbated by innkeeper Signora Fioria (Karen Ziemba). The musical essentially advocates a joie de vivr sensibility, where infidelity is expected and monogamy is considered passé.
Where you fall on this relationship continuum may impact your impression of the piece. Even in 2016, I think many people still hold hope that a true, lifelong love is possible. With limited rehearsal, the cast approaches the material with zeal. I was never quite sure the kind of woman Errico was trying to play. There are echoes of her earlier ingénue days (she starred as Eliza Doolittle opposite Richard Chamberlain in the short-lived revival of My Fair Lady) but then she morphs into Mama Rose 2.0 in her 11 o’clock number Everybody Loves Leona.
As her love interest, Troxell deliver a charming performance and his gorgeous tenor voice serves the material well, particularly in the Act One finale, “Take the Moment.” Ziemba, along with supporting cast members Sarah Stiles, Richard Poe, and Nancy Opel deliver light-hearted comic relief but the material never truly lifts off the page, leaving one to wonder if hearing this particular waltz after all these years was worth the wait.
Here’s what the other critics are saying:
““Waltz” is exactly the sort of production that Encores! should be doing. Since the company’s City Center revival of “Chicago” (also two decades ago) transferred to Broadway, where it continues to run and run, expectations have been loaded onto Encores! as an incubator of commercial hits.
But the program’s inestimable value lies in its presentation of shows we might otherwise never see — and of talented performers stretching muscles they rarely have a chance to use. I can’t say that this “Waltz” ever thrilled me. But I was fascinated by every second of it, and by the unresolved conflict of talents it embodies.” The New York Times
“You could have no better record of the clash of old and new, descendant and ascendant, that Rodgers and Sondheim represented in 1964. You can hear the conflict, song after song, as they turn that clash into moments of clever fun or immense but untethered beauty. And you can understand how it came to happen that such moments would never again suffice.” Vulture
“As directed by Evan Cabnet, this is an elegant production of a work that is better off left in the drawer, as a footnote to Sondheim’s unparalleled career. Melissa Errico gives a smashing lead performance as Leona that ought to leave theatergoers puzzled as to why she is not landing more starring roles.” amNewYork
Do I Hear a Waltz?
New York City Center
131 West 55th Street, NYC
Through May 15