Do I Hear a Waltz?

Richard Rodgers was an astonishing musical talent, and for decades the soul of that entirely American creation the musical comedy. To some extent, he revolutionized the hitherto fluff-filled form by taking on such themes as racism (South Pacific), wife-beating (Carousel), the abuses of monarchical power (The King and I), and mental illness (Judd in Oklahoma!, where Rodgers absolutely nailed the obscene self-pity of the dangerous fanatic -- although he kept the song comic -- in "Poor Judd Is Dead"). But you couldn't call the tone of his musicals serious or dark; it was modulated by the ethos of the time, which said wife-battering could be excused if it stemmed from frustrated love, and that all it took to civilize a dictator was the intervention of a strong, kindly Englishwoman. Rodgers's gorgeous music also had an emollient effect, and he was known most of all for his meltingly beautiful love songs: "My Heart Stood Still," "If I Loved You," "Younger Than Springtime," "Some Enchanted Evening."

Now consider Stephen Sondheim, the man who almost single-handedly reinvented the musical from the 1960s on, and who has written shows on topics as diverse as the work of Georges Seurat and the assassins of American presidents. Sondheim's songs are complex and multi-layered, rarely offering a straightforward emotion; his characters are often neurotic and self-involved. As for love in Sondheim -- it's tricky, self-serving, sometimes simply impossible to find.

These two giants worked together once and once only: in 1965, on Do I Hear a Waltz?, with Rodgers writing the music and Sondheim the lyrics. For this reason alone, the Arvada Center's revival is a great idea -- even though the show initially received lukewarm reviews and the composers ended up disliking each other. Waltz is an odd hybrid. The title song, with its unabashed romanticism and lovely swing and sweep, is the only genuinely memorable number, but the other songs are also worth a listen. Three female voices blend charmingly in "Moon in My Window," and the words feature a nice mix of cynicism and lyricism. It's hilarious when an unhappily married young couple insists "We're Gonna Be Alright" even as the lyrics flatly contradict the tune's bouncy rhythm. A five-voice complaint about air travel is funny and clever and particularly hits home in these days of endless airport lines and cramped, foodless flights. Other witty, tuneful songs: "Bargaining," in which a worldly Italian teaches an American how to shop in Venice, and "This Week, Americans," a pensione owner's complaints about the foreigners who visit her establishment. But, no, the love songs don't soar.

The plot, based on a play by Arthur Laurents, who also wrote the book, is less satisfactory. Leona Samish, a self-centered American tourist, arrives in Venice for a week's vacation and begins an affair with a married Italian, Renato Di Rossi. At this point, our expectations are quite specific: Don't uptight English and American women arrive in Italy (or Greece or France or anywhere the natives have glossy black hair and soulful eyes) in hordes every summer for lessons in love and sensuality? When Leona says she always expected to hear a waltz when she fell in love and the exquisite strains of "Do I Hear a Waltz?" creep into our ears and the sound swells and the stage fills with dancing couples -- well, we all know where this is going. Except it doesn't. Leona turns out to be too bratty and materialistic to earn her sweet week -- let alone lifetime -- of ecstasy. And as for the dashing Renato, he's hardly the Latin equivalent of South Pacific's suave Emile de Becque. Not only is the man married, but he's a dealer in questionable money and merchandise.

At first I kept thinking that John Paul Almon wasn't dashing and romantic enough for Renato, but once I realized he wasn't meant to be dashing, I could appreciate the actor's deft combination of gallantry and light-footed buffoonery. The McIlhennys, a pair of American tourists, are pretty stock characters, but Deborah Persoff and Paul Page give them warm and humorous life. Jennifer DeDominici delivers a gemlike performance as pensione-keeper Fioria. DeDominici's voice is as fluid and gleaming as a deep, running stream at night; her Fioria is seductive and amoral, but so utterly content with herself and her life that you can't help admiring her. The young couple, callow Eddie and petulant Jennifer, are well played by Brian R. Hutchinson and Emily Van Fleet, and it's nice to hear Van Fleet's higher notes playing over the deeper registers of her female co-stars.

It's hard to know just how to take Leona, who has an irritating habit of calling everyone she meets "Cookie." Are we supposed to care about her? The script is ambiguous, and Valerie Hill's altogether competent but never inspired performance doesn't settle the point. Hill is too young and pretty to be convincing as a desperate spinster, but she's not youthfully vulnerable enough to inspire affection, either. Part of the problem lies in the expectations we routinely bring to musicals -- especially those by Rodgers.

Music director Seth Weinstein and his musicians provide crisp accompaniment, but there's something wrong with the sound at this theater. I've never been able to figure out if it's the sound system itself or the configuration of the Arvada Center's auditorium. But since the music is the one compelling reason to see this show, it's a shame that the venue leeches the richness from the human voice and the effervescence out of the waltz.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman