Music in the Air

NY City Center Encores - February 2008

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Have you ever indulged in one of those German or Viennese gourmet coffees? There really isn't all that much to them: just coffee, steamed milk, whipped cream, sugar, and perhaps a bit of ground flavoring like chocolate or cinnamon. But all of the ingredients must be the highest grade, and no instant mix or robotic device can do real justice to these Mittel European concoctions, which must be prepared fresh by an experienced hand. Properly made, these coffees are gastronomic delights that bring a smile to the lips and an overall sense of warm satisfaction.

Such is the case with Music in the Air, a rarely seen 1932 attempt by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist-librettist Oscar Hammerstein II to keep operetta alive on Broadway in the midst of the Great Depression. Critics embraced this unusual work that reveled in operetta conventions while simultaneously spoofing them. Although Kern & Hammerstein also co-authored the landmark hit Show Boat, both men and a fair number of their admirers often expressed a preference for Music in the Air. There has never been a complete cast recording, and a surprisingly entertaining 1934 screen version cut several key songs from the score. Broadway has not seen a full-scale revival in half a century, so scholars and musical theatre buffs have only been able to guess at what all the fuss was about.

Thank to an exceptional concert staging by Encores, we need wonder no more. This is the sort of rarity that fans look to this long running series for, and all of the deceptively simple ingredients were served up fresh, with delicious results. Kern's score is packed with rich musical touches, which Hammerstein echoes with the unusual use of rhythmic rhymed dialogue and action tied to musical cues -- a waiter dropping lumps of sugar into a cup, set to specific notes. Rob Berman and the Encores Orchestra made all this detailed accompaniment seem effortless.

The plot is pure Hammerstein -- in a small Bavarian mountain town, the local music professor and school teacher write a charming song. Along with the professor's lovely daughter (who is in love with the school teacher), they travel to Munich in hopes of getting the song published, and find themselves caught up in the sophisticated, ego-driven world of the theatre. After various misunderstandings and some heartbreak, they wind up back home, happy to leave the evils of the big city forever. (Amazing how Hammerstein, who born, raised, and made in Manhattan, so often depicted small town life as morally superior. After all, it took a small Bavarian town to raise Adolph Hitler, no? But I digress . . .)

Sierra Boggess and Ryan Silverman were charming as the innocent small town lovers, and the always reliable Walter Charles was delightful as a bird seller who encourages their love. They got several chances to sing "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star," the catchy tune that sets the plot in motion. Kristen Chenoweth and Douglas Sills were both in top musical and comic form as a tempestuous diva and her equally emotional libretto-writing lover. These two had a blast sending-up operetta conventions and oversized theatrical personalities -- singing the ravishing "The Song Is You" with full relish along the way.

Stage and screen legend Marni Nixon stopped the show singing "In Egern on the Tegern Zee," and extra laughs were won by David Schramm as a beleaguered music publisher and Dick Latessa as a producer. Robert Sella played a long-suffering orchestra leader with real style, winning a surprise ovation with his spirited defense of what it means to be a theatrical professional.

So the newly-restored Music in the Air is a genuine charmer, but one that has to be served up by knowing hands. Anything less, and this gourmet treat would just be cold java "mit schlag."

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