Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Review: 'A Grand Night for Singing'

Rodgers and Hammerstein are doing great, once again, at the newly-reopened Bucks County Playhouse. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from New Hope.

Review: 'A Grand Night for Singing'

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The cast of Buck County Playhouse's "A Grand Night for Singing" checks out Ron Bohmer's cellphone to see if his "Honey Bun" is really 101 pounds of fun. From left, Kenita R. Miller, Erin Davie, Greg Bosworth, Bohmer and Courtney Balan.

By Howard Shapiro

Radiant in the first production of its new era, the once-celebrated and recently dark Bucks County Playhouse has reopened in its former grist mill in New Hope along the Delaware River. The theater itself is spiffy in an air-conditioned re-do, the company is once again professional with an Actors’ Equity contract — and the debut show is a winner.

That musical revue, A Grand Night for Singing, is packed with more than 30 tunes by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Despite its simplicity as a basic songlist and nothing more, the Playhouse production directed by Lonny Price raises the bar so high that almost every song is performed as its own playlet. Have you really been told so many stories in two acts with virtually no dialogue?

Yes, and with a cast of five — four with Broadway credits and a fifth surely on his way — and a six-member orchestra on myriad instruments as the evening moves forward.

The Playhouse’s new producing director, Jed Bernstein — for years, the leader of Broadway’s association of producers — wanted to reopen by honoring Rodgers and Hammerstein, who lived the area along with other theater luminaries for whom the Bucks County Playhouse was a sort of country-house stage and proving ground for Broadway work after its founding 73 years ago.

Bernstein also wanted a show with live music, which had not been a part of amateur productions there in recent decades. He succeeded in both goals; the orchestra provides a lush backing to the songs, and if I were laying odds, I’d go with Rodgers and Hammerstein smiling somewhere up there.

A Grand Night for Singing has been a pliable vehicle, entertaining but not especially ambitious, since the Roundabout Theatre Company brought it to Broadway in 1993 for 93 performances. Only days before it opened at Bucks County Playhouse last week, the Walnut Street Theatre finished running its own sweet and low-wattage production in its 80-seat Independence Studio, with four singers (one less than the original) backed by a pianist. Together they delivered the music as a concert in the intimate space. The Walnut moved 13 songs around from the original production, for reasons not obvious.

The Playhouse rearranges the tunes, too, almost all through the second act, also for no clear reason. But Bucks County Playhouse’s proscenium stage theater is five times larger than the Walnut’s third-floor space, and this is no concert rendering. It’s a terrific compendium of fresh interpretations that emphasize the show in the phrase show tune. South Pacific’s “Some Enchanted Evening” is a perfect example — you’ve probably heard it countless times. Yet the cast makes it a stirring end to the first act and the song, like the Playhouse, is wholly renewed.

In the little stories they tell through the songs, the singers employ some modern accompaniment — most effectively, cell phones; everyone of them gets an e-mail picture of Ron Bohmer’s “Honey Bun” to prove that she really is 101 pounds of fun as he sings, smitten by her. Kenita R. Miller’s jazz version of “Kansas City” brings things cooly up to date. “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” is a ride in itself in Greg Bosworth’s delivery. Erin Davie turns the stage-struck “It’s Me,” into a smooth and funny tale, and Courtney Balan’s “Something Wonderful” is just that.

Those are only a few of many highlights, led with just the right pacing by music director Phil Reno. The singers look great in Nicole V. Moody’s costumes, a mix of formal and highly-stylized casual; something about them says New Hope.

And in their performances, the singers easily demonstrate the versatility that makes me long for partnerships like Rodgers and Hammerstein, who employed no single style and whose no two songs sound alike. If there’s any frustration with A Grand Night for Singing, it’s that on your way out, you’ll have trouble deciding which one to hum first.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727,, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

A Grand Night for Singing: Through July 29 at Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main St., New Hope. Tickets: $29-$54. Information: 215-862-2121 or

About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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