By Ruth Ross
Take a healthy dose of songs with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II (31 to be exact), add six glorious voices (three men, three women), fluid staging by Lauren Mills Moran on a spare but evocative set by Jonathan Wentz and superb musical direction by Warren Helms (on piano, accompanied by Tim Metz on bass) and you've got the recipe for A Grand Night for Singing, the cabaret production closing out Women's Theater Company's 20th season! (Above L-R seated: Chelsea Friedlander, Perrri Lauren; standing L-R: Peter Jay Oliff, Warren Helms, Joseph Elefante, Chris Mortenson, Jill Cappuccino)
This terrifically tuneful production would not seem, at first glance, to provide much for a drama critic to assess, but along with the music, the six singers actually use their dramatic chops to infuse Hammerstein's clever (but not too precious), meaningful lyrics way beyond their melodic composition.
The attire worn by the singers and the accompanists (costumes by Frances M. Harrison) indeed signals that this is more than just warbling; the black tuxedos with vests worn by the men and the elegant black gowns adorning the women in the first act—changing to white dinner jackets and pastel chiffon frocks in the second act— suit the material and provide great fun when a song like "I Can't Say No" (sung by Ado Annie in Oklahoma) is sung with a Western twang or ("Everything's Up-to-date in) Kansas City" from the same show is performed to an unexpected, yet delightful, jazz tempo.
Of the six actor/singers, the women provide the most contrast: Jill Cappuccino is a cool blonde, tall and elegant; Chelsea Friedlander, with her sparkling eyes and wide smile, the ingénue; and Perri Lauren, an imp with a mischievous look in her eye signaling that she knows more than she's letting on. The three play very well off each other and aren't afraid to screw up their faces ("The Stepsisters' Lament" from Cinderella). Wide-eyed Friedlander is wonderful singing "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful" and "It Might as Well Be Spring," while Cappuccino is a touching Julie Jordan singing "If I Loved You" from Carousel. Lauren is adorable in a theater song, "It's Me," about the transformation of a shy nobody the minute she steps on stage and assumes another persona, and coolly dismissive averring "The Gentleman Is a Dope." She’s glad (really?) that he doesn’t belong to her.
Of the male singers, stellar performances are turned in by Chris Mortenson extolling the virtues of "The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top" (much to Perri Lauren's droll reluctance) and "Honey Bun," to the vocal instrument accompaniment of the rest of the cast. Peter Jay Oliff does a fine job with "We Kiss in the Shadows," as does Joseph Elefante with "This Nearly Was Mine," two especially touching ballads.
Of course, the sextet perform in duets, trios, quartets and all together in many other songs, some of which will be familiar, others not so much. To "Shall We Dance?" Friedlander and Elefante hoof a sprightly polka around the wide stage, joined by the two other couples who execute the maneuver without bumping into each other! The men have great fun attempting to persuade Friedlander to ditch them in "Don't Marry Me" (Flower Drum Song), and the finales to both acts involve the entire cast in a magnificent "Some Enchanted Evening" and "I Have Dreamed"—all of which reminds us of just how much musical theater has lost with the passing of these two giants, Rodgers and Hammerstein.
A Grand Night for Singing was originally produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York in 1993, but it is the kind of show that is perfect for small local (and in this case, Actors Equity) theaters: all you need is a minimal set, some nice costumes and musical accompaniment to pull it off. Wait! What you really need are six talented singer/actors (with an emphasis on the latter) to really put across the melody, lyrics and feeling of these wonderful songs, especially when they have been stripped of the dramatic context of a show—and this the Women's Theater Company has in spades.
So for a mild Spring evening (or afternoon), grab your best gal or guy or friend (or mom and dad) and head on up to the Parsippany Playhouse on Knoll Road in Lake Hiawatha to catch A Grand Night for Singing. But hurry: it only runs weekends through June 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. For information and tickets call 973.316.3033, visit www.womenstheater.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for seniors; group rates are available.