Song Sung Blue

Part of the promise of an evening of Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites is that the audience will be able to enjoy the company of charismatic artists. No matter how cleverly the selections have been juxtaposed for continuity's sake, theatergoers rely on the actors to provide a sense of import and wholeness to each stand-alone number, duet and group scene. For the most part, though, the Arvada Center's A Grand Night for Singing winds up being an abysmal night for acting. (The show is co-produced by JRS Presentations, an out-of-town group that packages touring shows.)

The quintet of singers -- who, as a whole, pale in comparison to some of Denver's hometown talent -- hit most of the right notes (though a couple are painfully flat), and the four-piece band provides some nicely nuanced accompaniment. But the performers' overall lack of dramatic presence, combined with the show's uninspired choreography, flat direction and less-than-flattering costume choices, dilute the material of its inherent appeal.

Soprano Tami Tappan does, however, command the stage with virtuoso skill during her many solo numbers. Her silvery voice lends beauty and affection to "A Wonderful Guy" and soars with both tenderness and regret during "If I Loved You." She has a more mature appearance than an ideal Rodgers and Hammerstein ingenue -- according to a program note, all of the singers play against type now and then as a way of enriching the audience's "emotional experience" -- but Tappan communicates simple, heartfelt truths while gliding through some of the composing team's more glorious melodies. And despite the fact that the near-two-hour revue is peppered with insipid dialogue that's meant to sound improvised yet rarely does, the assured Tappan delivers her one-liners with stylish ease.

Unfortunately, most of the show's other numbers are plagued with a mixture of forced affability and cumbersome contrivance, such as when Christopher Lavely intones the first few bars of "Maria" (from The Sound of Music) while lying flat on his back. It doesn't help when one of the other actors chimes in with the spoken line, "Well, how DO you keep a wave on the sand?" moments after Lavely muddles through those very words. Nor do songs like "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" (from Oklahoma!) benefit when the other performers stand on one side of the stage and make idiotic observations (like "Good answer!") while Lavely and his "date" ride an imaginary carriage and the band vamps through a couple of bouncy instrumental measures. As is the case with Shakespeare, cramming extemporaneous remarks between fixed lines of metrical speech or breaking the natural flow of phrases by ad-libbing is a poor substitute for acting, gesturing and speaking on and with the line.

On a more positive note, Leslie Easterbrook and Heather Lee join Tappan to deliver an effectively jazzy rendition of "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair." And Michael G. Hawkins endows most of his scenes with warmth and humanity, though he takes an ill-advised approach with the South Pacific tearjerker "This Nearly Was Mine." Given that he doesn't have the musical's previous scenes to properly set the mood and tone, he shouldn't try to manufacture the emotion by staring at the floor; instead, he should involve the audience with his struggle by fixing his gaze over our heads.

By the time the company assembles on stage to deliver the final medley, one wonders whether The Lawrence Welk Show's Joe Feeney or Norma the Champagne Lady are going to waltz on and put some soft-focus finishing touches on the mostly schmaltzy evening. Thankfully, the finale comes together decently enough to remind us that the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein are among the greatest works in the modern theater. Apart from Tappan's heroic performance, though, the rest of this canned concoction sounds more like a nightmarish rerun of Welk's show than an invigorating tribute to Broadway's golden years.

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Jim Lillie

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