In the Berkshires, “The Hills Are Alive with Rodgers & Hammerstein”
Rodgers & Hammerstein were referred to as the “comfort food” of popular musicals a couple of times during “The Hills Are Alive with Rodgers & Hammerstein,” the meat and potatoes of the American songbook. The composers are giants in Broadway history, best known for “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music” If you were producing a 70-minute cabaret for five glorious voices, they certainly have a wealth of material to choose from. Barrington Stage Company was slated to perform “South Pacific” on their mainstage this summer so it makes great sense that Artistic Director and Director/Co-Conceiver of this evening’s entertainment, Julianne Boyd, would choose Rodgers & Hammerstein as the topic.
Richard Rodgers wrote gorgeous, indestructible melodies which get a workout all evening long in such favorites as “Ten Minutes Ago” from “Cinderella,” “It Might as Well Be Spring” form State Fair and of course “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.” The last magnificently performed by Nicholas Rodriguez who (did I understand it right?) was cast in the postponed “South Pacific.”
Rodger’s partner, the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, left an even more indelible mark on 20th century popular music by practicing a radical inclusion in his lyrics going back to “Show Boat” written with Jerome Kern, through his work with Rodgers and on to his profound influence over his neighbor and mentee Stephen Sondheim. The man believed deeply that you could never predict or understand how love works between two people and wrote love songs for the most unlikely of couples-Anna and The King, Nellie and Emile de Becque and Maria and Captain von Trapp among many others. His open heart tested his audience’s acceptance then and even more so now. I’m looking at you Billy Bigelow.
What Hammerstein has to say and how he matters elevates this evening of standards performed in a tent in Pittsfield. After 5 months of no theater across the country “The Hills…” follows close on the heels of the twisty antihero “Harry Clarke” which closed last Sunday. The Revue can get an absurdly appreciative ovation out of a stage line of “It’s so good to be singing here for a live audience with a live band” but it can also burrow into you with the power of transformative love as described by Hammerstein and illuminated by these top notch artists.
When the delightful Storm Lever dedicates “Something Wonderful” to all those partners who have spent quarantine together, saying it’s been an educational experience with a slight strain in her voice. That we’ve seen “The good, the bad, the flaws and all” and are challenged to love unconditionally and as the song says “This is a man you’ll forgive and forgive/ And help and protect as long as you live.” The months of lockdown in a too small apartment and the toll on each other becomes tangible for us all…and we know we’re the lucky ones.
Alexandra Silber speaks of her parent’s marriage and her father who died when she was young and marvels at her mother’s fortitude, generosity and forbearance wondering how she goes on. The memory of a love is nourishing as she lifts “Hello Young Lovers” into the heavens. “Don’t cry because I’m alone/ All of my memories are happy tonight.”
Most pointedly, BSC Associate Artist Alan H. Green says he watched “The Sound of Music” many, many times as a child and that it was only in recent days he understood why as a Black man he was so deeply affected by “Edelweiss.” He gained an appreciation for the song as a lament for “A man who loves his country deeply but hates how his country treats him.”
The diverse cast of five are in fine voice, terrifically talented with Broadway credits in all their bios and, most of all, are having a terrific time singing to a “live audience.” The joy is palpable. There is much fun had with the breakout from quarantine and jokes about distance. A duet By Nicholas Rodriguez and the radiant Alysha Umphress employ a six-foot pole to keep them physically distanced but it’s also employed as a dance partner, a swing and a light saber. When the women wash that man out of their hair, they must first hand sanitize, of course. The cast are having a great time with each other and we can’t help but join in, literally on a sing-along “Do-Re-Mi.” Alan H. Green leads us with “I’m asking you to join me so I’m going to put a mask on and join you.”
The highlights which come quickly with Ms. Lever doing the little-known “It’s Me” from “Me and Juliet” with the evening’s sassiest dancing (choreography by Shea Sullivan), followed quickly by Mr. Green’s “If I Loved You,” an audience and personal favorite. Nicholas Rodriguez scores with “Some Enchanted Evening” which is played as a scene with Ms. Silber and Nicholas proves himself a great scene partner throughout the evening nowhere more affectingly than in “We Kiss in the Shadows” with Mr. Green. Ms. Lever follows that provocatively cast number with the biting “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Alysha Umphress has her own scene with the Co-Conceiver/Musical Director Darren R. Cohen where she talked of how R&H were the pop radio of the time and launched into a swinging “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” which effectively evoked the immortal Blossom Dearie/Miles Davis rendition whose arrangement it uses. Alysha Umphress delivered a piercing “Bali Hai” with the opening lines “Most people live on a lonely island/Lost in the middle of a foggy sea/Most people long for another island/One where they know they will like to be” before transporting us with the rapture of the final note. It should be noted, the audience sat in our small groups 6 feet apart from each other, physically separated like an archipelago.
BSC Associate Artist Darren R. Cohen leads his crack band-Trevor M. Pierce on keyboards, Deanne Prouty on percussion and Peter Zay doing double duty on guitar and a most welcome cello.
Once again Director Julianne Boyd has gone above and beyond to create theater under extraordinary circumstances and it feels like a gift, a benediction and a warning as she sends us out into the night after a mega-mix encore of a dozen R&H hits with the exhortation that we should take the love and support we’ve experienced and spread it out into the rest of the world. Even when, especially when it’s difficult. As Oscar Hammerstein II said “If you really believe in the brotherhood of man, and you want to come into its fold, you’ve got to let everyone else in, too.”
Tartell Family Outdoor Stage