Music in the Air

Lovers of operetta and musical theater history will find the Encores! revival rewarding, but others should be advised this is not another "Show Boat."

'Music in the Air'

Then and now, when “Music in the Air” came to town, America was in the throes of economic recession, with the electorate sweeping a popular new president into office. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s modern-style operetta proved a novel enchantment when it opened in 1932, the night Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected. In the first weeks of the Obama administration, the enchanting score is yoked to a libretto that measures low on the novelty scale. Lovers of operetta and musical theater history will find the Encores! revival rewarding, but others should be advised this is not another “Show Boat.”

The book, about a pair of young innocents from the country who visit the city and become ensnared with a feuding showbiz couple, turns out to be creakier than a swinging gate. Fortunately, Encores! has placed the comedy in the hands of Kristin Chenoweth and Douglas Sills.

Chenoweth has a unique set of stage talents that occasionally overpower her material. Here, it’s as if Hammerstein has been sitting in the rehearsal hall rewriting to fit her style. She gives one of her grandest performances yet, channeling Carole Lombard in “Twentieth Century” and wringing humor out of every gesture, movement and musical note.

Sills, too, is an inspired operetta clown. If “Music in the Air” has treacherous lulls built into the book, Chenoweth and Sills more than compensate.

The rest of the company provides a generally satisfactory time. Sierra Boggess, generally seen wearing a tail in “The Little Mermaid,” proves light on her feet as the unsophisticated country girl who tries to step into the prima donna’s shoes. Ryan Silverman is similarly helpful as the country boy, although the two roles are underwritten.

Tom Alan Robbins plays the village music master without the ingratiating charm and showbiz flair one suspects the authors intended. Dick Latessa and Marni Nixon appear in small roles, while Walter Charles scores as a wandering minstrel with a birdcage on his back. The evening’s strongest acting support comes from Robert Sella (“Side Man”) who makes a great deal of the minor role of the resident musical director.

The glory of “Music in the Air,” unsurprisingly, is the music. The hit of the show, “The Song Is You,” positively bursts with emotion on the wings of melody. In context this comes from a jaded songwriter who springs it on potential romantic conquests — a cliched plot contrivance which Hammerstein sees fit to use twice in two acts.

The other song that retains a degree of popularity is the infinitely charming “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star.” But there are further pleasures ripe for rediscovery such as “And Love Was Born,” “There’s a Hill Beyond a Hill,” “In Egern on the Tegern See” and “We Belong Together.”

The show was a success in those dark days of the Depression — the Herald Tribune called it “a honeypot of romance and melody” — and enjoyed numerous productions through the 1930s (as well as a 1934 Hollywood version starring Gloria Swanson, with screenplay by Billy Wilder).

But the market for musical comedies about happy Germans soon evaporated, for obvious reasons, and “Music in the Air” all but disappeared. Hammerstein himself attempted a Broadway revival in 1951, changing the locale from Germany to Switzerland, but with results so dire that the piece hasn’t been brushed off since. Given the lack of a full recording, the show has remained an intriguing mystery. The evidence from City Center demonstrates that much of the score retains its magic.

Director Gary Griffin, known to Encores! regulars for his delectable work on “The New Moon” and “Pardon My English,” does the best he can with the underdone libretto. Musical director Rob Berman, who has Kern’s score and Robert Russell Bennett’s richly flavorful orchestrations to work with, gives us a grand musical evening. The dressed-up concert is handsome in the typical Encores! style, with costumer David C. Woolard supplying enough lederhosen and dirndls to stock an outpost of Luchow’s on Restaurant Row.

“Music in the Air” is unlikely to be remembered as one of Encores! most enchanted evenings, but revisiting a fabled and all-but-lost Kern-Hammerstein musical is precisely what we look to the series for.

Music in the Air

NY City Center; 2,753 seats; $95 top

  • Production: A NY City Center Encores! presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Jerome Kern, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Directed by Gary Griffin. Music director, Rob Berman. Choreography, Michael Lichtefeld.
  • Crew: Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, David C. Woolard; lighting, Paul Miller; sound, Scott Lehrer; concert adaptation, David Ives; music coordinator, Seymour Red Press; original orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett; score restoration, Bruce Pomahac; production stage manager, Peter Hanson. Opened, reviewed Feb. 5, 2009. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: Dr. Walther Lessing - Tom Alan Robbins Sieglinde Lessing - Sierra Boggess Karl Reder - Ryan Silverman Cornelius - Walter Charles Ernst Weber - David Schramm Uppman - Robert Sella Marthe - Anne L. Nathan Frieda Hatzfeld - Kristin Chenoweth Bruno Mahler - Douglas Sills Frau Direktor Lilli Kirschner - Marni Nixon Herr Direktor Kirschner - Dick Latessa <b>With:</b> Paul Appleby, Erica Aubrey, Craig Bennett, Dawn Cantwell, Tony Capone, Stephen Carrasco, Carson Church, Jack Doyle, Leah Edwards, Colm Fitzmaurice, Patty Goble, Kevin Grace, Joy Hermalyn, Anne Horak, Mary Illes, Amanda Johnson, Amy Justman, Michael Marcotte, Jonathan Gabriel Michie, J. Maxwell Miller, Rebecca Robbins, Sarah Caldwell Smith, Gordon Stanley, Jackie Thompson, Jamie Van Eyck, Mark Womack.
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