There’s a masters class going on at Starlight every night this week.
The subject: How to Write a Great Musical. The instructors: Oscar Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers. Enroll if you can.
Now, before you respond, "What are two dead white guys gonna teach me about writing a musical in 2011," remember that those irreverent South Parkers, Matt Stone and Trey Parker have borrowed liberally from Oscy and Dick for years. Their current Broadway blockbuster, THE BOOK OF MORMON, reads like the final term paper in R&H’s course on this subject. And why not?
Nobody does it like Rodgers & Hammerstein, and these guys were at their best doing THE KING & I (now through Sunday at Starlight).
At Tuesday night’s preview, a sliver of moon was out and a cool summer breeze was in the air; yet the magic of Hammerstein’s lyrics and storytelling trumped them both.
You forget about the book writing on R&H shows, because most people remember them as songwriters. But Oscar Hammerstein’s storytelling is something else. The scenes between the King and Anna are richly nuanced, yet charming– better than Aaron Sorkin‘s best work on a really great episode of "West Wing."
You get laughs, revelations, touching memories, repartee– it’s all here.
All in service of a fascinating story about a single mother’s amazing adventure (how about dramatizing "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" to bring home the evils of slavery to a clueless King– brilliant!).
And those gorgeous lyrics– man could Oscar Hammerstein write a song. Simple, effective, never too arch or hip but always full of heart– that’s the way he labored over a lyric. Where Berlin and even the Gershwins (and especially Rodger’s earlier lyricist, Larry Hart) would write throwaway intros, Hammerstein comes up with a prelude to "Hello Young Lovers" that’s a beautiful song all by itself.
Remembering her late husband, Anna trills, "I think about a time when the earth smelled of summer and the sky was streaked with white."
Just like last night, only more beautiful.
And what a set list: "I Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You," "Something Wonderful," "I Have Dreamed," "Shall We Dance."
Hammerstein’s graceful, ageless lyrics propel us through the night (Richard Rodgers’ score is pretty amazing, too).
And the Starlight cast does the property up proud.
Lou Diamond Phillips makes a great King. Now that Yul Brynner has been gone for many years, we’re no longer hung up on his interpretation of the part. Phillips did the role on Broadway. He knows where all the moments are and delivers them effortlessly (though his ballroom dancing looked a bit restrained).
Hats off to Starlight producer Denton Yockey for enlisting his buddy Lou to come back and play the part for us.
Rachel Bay Jones is a solid Anna. We believe the developing attraction between Anna and the King, which sometimes doesn’t come off (a common problem in that other R&H opus, THE SOUND OF MUSIC). There’s a frisson here that’s just barely breaks the surface. But we can feel it, thanks to Ms Jones’ (and Phillips’) capable work.
All of the voices are lovely.
Diane Phelan’s Tuptim and Joshua Dela Cruz (Lun Tha), the doomed lovers, give you shivers, they’re so beautiful. The choreography is a little clunky, though it comes nicely to life in the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" sketch in Act 2.
The rented set from TOTS in Atlanta looks nice, though you get the feeling it would appear more impressive indoors (that’s alot of space to fill out there in Swope Park). Steve Short’s costumes look great.
The orchestra sounds terrific.
In fact, everything about the sound– vocals, accompaniment– is first class, which is an especially good thing, if you want to learn how to write a Broadway musical. Oscar Hammerstein was a master; and Starlight
has his thesis on stage for everyone to admire.
Pay attention, take notes— perhaps we’ll be whistling YOUR happy tune some day soon.