NY City Center Encores - February 2010
Review by John Kenrick
(The photos below are all thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)
With a rich and varied score by Harold Rome and a masterful libretto by S.N. Behrman and Joshua Logan, Fanny is one of the most inexplicably under-appreciated musical hits from Broadway's so-called "Golden Age." Warmly received in 1954, it enjoyed a well-deserved two year run, but the Hollywood screen version turned the songs into background score, and revivals have been few and far between. The original cast recording preserved some glorious singing by Ezio Pinza, William Tabbert and newcomer Florence Henderson, but it took more than half a century for New York to get a fresh chance to hear Fanny in all its fully orchestrated glory.
The result is the kind of joyous rediscoveries that the Encores was designed to provide. Solid casting, excellent staging, and loving attention to a demanding score -- and a City Center audience was once more aglow, basking in a well-crafted, rarely seen gem. Set on the picturesque Marseilles waterfront, Fanny told a rather daring story by the standards of its day. When Fanny's lover Marius leaves to sail the world, she soond discovers herself pregnant. The much older businessman Panisse offers to marry Fanny and proclaim the child his own -- with the blessings of longtime friend (and sometime foe) Cesar, who is Marius's father. Years later, Marius returns, and all of the characters face difficult decisions in the name of love.
Marc Bruni, who until now has served as an artistic associate on numerous New York productions, has directed this concert staging with a sure hand -- despite minimal sets and many scenes, the story moved with crystal clarity and at exactly the right speed. Best of all, he understands that this show calls for genuine sentiment, as opposed to the cartoon sentimentality that plagues so many of the "dirge-athons" passing for musicals on Broadway today. Under Rob Berman's baton, Rome's score, which includes intricate chorales, eloquent character songs and almost operatic ballads is delivered with the same respect for sentiment, with both the orchestra and cast sounding magnificent from start to a sweetly tearful finish. Lorin Lotarro's choreography was an outstanding asset, making even an extraordinarily athletic circus scene fly along with deceptive ease. Encore's regulars John Lee Beatty (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) and Ken Billington (lighting) once again remind us why they are three of the finest designers in the business, giving the production a handsome, polished look on a limited budget.
It is always a joy to see and hear the wonderful George Hearn again. As Cesar, he invests a difficult role with exquisite, understated emotion, and although it sounded at times as if he were contending with a cold, he wrapped his warm baritone around every note, making for moments of surprisingly gentle beauty. People in the profession know and admire Fred Applegate as an outstanding character actor, but as Panisse he gets a rare chance to combine his masterful acting with some truly beautiful singing -- the result is a magical, moving performance. As Fanny, lovely Elena Shaddow sings with a gorgeous soprano voice and acts with tremendous heart, and as her young lover Marius, James Snyder wins cheers with a soaring tenor voice and leading man looks. Priscilla Lopez was a delight as Fanny's mother, Ted Sutherland is charming as Fanny's son, and both Michael McCormick and Jack Doyle scored comic points in ensemble roles.
Some people have dismissed Fanny as "old fashioned" -- and anyone who says that is merely proclaiming their own ignorance. This is a musical built at a time when discerning audiences wanted masterful, satisfying, melodic entertainment on Broadway -- a time when angry stomping did not pass for choreography, when plots had to be more than a tired old screenplay, when toilet-mouthed obscenities were not acceptable lyrics, and when music had to be something more than the recycled leftovers from some pop songwriter's file cabinet. It's a fair bet Broadway will rarely offer up new musicals with the emotional eloquence of Fanny -- all the more reason to rejoice when Encores gives discriminating audiences such a satisfying chance to revisit the kind of magic that made many of us fall in love with musicals in the first place.