Tuesday, March 3, 2020

No Strings (J2 Spotlight)

By Harry Forbes

This 1962 musical was innovative in a number of ways: a biracial romance between the characters played by Diahann Carroll and Richard Kiley; a highly stylized presentation with the musicians not in the pit, but offstage in the wings; only woodwinds, brass, harp and percussion as the punning title suggests; and the first and only Broadway score for which composer Richard Rodgers supplied both music and lyrics. This last was necessitated by the death of his longtime collaborator Oscar Hammerstein II after ‘The Sound of Music.”

Rodgers had already tried out his lyric writing skill in some new numbers for the remake of “State Fair” the year before, and would go on to do likewise for the TV musical “Androcles and the Lion” and the added songs in the film version of “The Sound of Music.” But thereafter, he sought the less stressful arrangement of working with a lyricist.

The show ran for 580 performances, and a successful London production starred Beverly Todd and Art Lund. 

J2 Spotlight followed up its successful maiden venture -- Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields’ “Seesaw” -- with this very credible production which, all things considered, trumped the 2003 Encores revival starring Maya Days and, if I recall correctlly, a below-par James Naughton.

Playwright Samuel Taylor’s book concerns David, an expatriate novelist (Cameron Bond), frittering away his talents among the fast set in Paris: photographer Luc (convincingly Gallic Luke Hamilton) and his sexy assistant (and girlfriend) Jeannette (vivacious Annabelle Fox) who work for Vogue editor Mollie (Sandy York), best bud Mike (Patrick Connaghan) who sets his predatory sights on Oklahoma heiress Comfort (Anne Wechsler). David falls hard for Barbara, a glamorous African-American model (Keyonna Knight) who’s being kept (platonically) by the wealthy Louis (Tim Ewing).

Inevitably, the romance is not without conflict. David needs to be back in Maine to concentrate on his writing far away from frivolous Gallic distractions, and Barbara thrives on her life as a high fashion model. The subject of race is never articulated, and with biracial romances currently such a non-issue, contemporary audiences may assume that it is incompatibility alone that scuttles the happy ending. (For the record, both Kiley and Carroll lobbied strenuously for an alternative wrap-up.)

Director/Choreographer Diedre Goodwin makes a good stab at capturing the stylish staging of director Joe Layton’s original as well as can be expected on the modest Theatre Row stage, though the conceit of the couple walking through a couple of curtained arches on Ryan J. Douglas’ minimalist set -- lighted by Ethan Steimel -- as if through the streets of Paris wears a little thin. (An image of the Eiffel Tower serves as the obvious but appropriate backdrop.)

Right from the start, when she enters singing the show’s breakout hit, “The Sweetest Sounds,” Knight is remarkably successful in capturing the Diahann Carroll look and even the timbre of her voice except perhaps in the less comfortable upper registers. In Luc’s studio, she strikes convincing model poses, too. And Bond proves a solid leading man with acting chops and a virile voice. The two play well together, even though the dialogue scenes tend to drag.

True to the original conceit, there are no strings in Music Director Grant Strom’s reduced orchestrations. He is accompanied on piano by Dan Monte on percussion and Schuyler Thornton on flute.

Rodgers wrote one of his most melodic latter-day scores, and showed himself a lyricist closer to the sophisticated sensibilities of his first partner Lorenz Hart (though without the latter’s special genius), and one can also discern similarities to the more hard-nosed Hammerstein sentiments of “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It” from the stage score of “The Sound of Music.”

A contemporaneous instrumental album, “No Strings (With Strings)” by the show’s original orchestrator, Ralph Burns, demonstrates how very tuneful the melodies are, taken on their own. 

Taylor’s script is soft-grained and talky, but always intelligent. It’s a genuinely adult love story, if not a particularly gripping one. It may be heresy to say that even in these small venues, modern shows ought to be miked to give the overall sound some of the requisite Broadway oomph. It’s not a matter of audibility but rather recreating the proper ambience. This would serve not only to  enhance the songs, but would also serve to make the dialogue more involving.

Beyond the excellence of Bond and Knight, the show has been very well cast. Ewing gives a particularly stylish account of “The Man Who Has Everything.” York has just the right manner as the worldly-wise Vogue editor. Wechsler brings a lively presence to her good-hearted party girl, and Connaghan is appropriately hateful as her caddish boyfriend.

Matthew Solomon’s very nice costume design captures the era well, though some of the wigs are risible. 

(Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street; telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through March 8)

PHOTO CREDIT: Clay Anderson

Top: (left to right): Cameron Bond, Keyonna Knight

Below: (left to right): Annabelle Fox, Anne Otto, Keyonna Knight, Emilee Theno, Ashley Lee, Heather Klobukowski, Cameron Bond
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