ALMOST LIKE BEING IN LOVE
November 17, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
New York’s City Center’s Encores! is presenting its loyal audiences with an early Christmas present this week — a tender and touching production of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s seventy-year old flight of fancy, Brigadoon. But if you want to see it you have to hurry; there are only a few performances left this weekend before, like the mythical town itself, it disappears on Sunday night, unlikely to return anytime soon.
That Brigadoon is rarely done anymore is not without good reason. I wouldn’t be surprised if its story creaked a bit even at its premiere in 1947. It’s overly-sentimental, filled with stock characters, and though the score is beautiful, it’s got a lot of filler in it. And its power ballads all need to be sung by the very best if there is any chance of being moved by them. And that is where this Brigadoon delivers. The only word that applies to the performances of Kelli O’Hara and Patrick Wilson is perfection. Do I risk saying something as corny as “they are theatre Gods?” Well, there, I said it. Last evening, the music they produced was so thrilling that I positively swooned from my perch in the balcony near to the top of City Center, as high as I have been in many a moon (arriving as I did without a ticket, the box office only had $127 balcony seats left, which I respectfully declined. Then a minute or two later a lady approached me, asked me if I needed a ticket, and sold me hers for $20. The result of which was that for one night only — I was right back “Up in the Cheap Seats”).
Both now in their early 40s, O’Hara and Wilson have been giving their all in musical after musical since the new century began: his Broadway debut was in the short-lived The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm in 1999; she was a replacement in Jekyll and Hyde in 2000. O’Hara is always a delight, but last night she surpassed herself, bringing an effortlessness and ease that made you sit on the edge of your seat in anticipation of when she would sing again. Wilson has now matured into an exceptional leading man of the first order, never in better voice than he is here. I first saw him in Los Angeles, prior to his Broadway debut, when he was starring in the first national tour of the 1994 Carousel revival. It was obvious to me right off the bat that I was watching a star in the making. In fact, I was so taken with him, as well as that whole production, that I went right out and bought tickets to see it again. I’ve still never seen a better Billy Bigelow.
As with most Encores! productions, there is little doubt of getting less than a special experience, even if the show on display is wanting for one reason or another. As the program states: “The idea behind Encores! has been to present American musical theatre in a way that sounded absolutely authentic — each show would be true to its era and its style.” And so it has been for the past twenty-five years of these presentations. Last evening was no different, with its 28-member orchestra, led by Rob Berman, which is always reason enough to see anything they produce. Brigadoon, in particular, is a throwback to the days when shows would offer not only a singing, but a dancing chorus — when producers were able to afford hiring both. The richness of sound and the purity of dance that flows on the City Center stage, make for an exhilarating evening.
The original Brigadoon opened at the now demolished Ziegfeld Theatre on March 13, 1947 and ran for more than five hundred performances, a good run in its day. It starred Marion Bell and David Brooks, names that don’t mean much today, as this show marked the apex of their careers. Marion had what one can only assume was the misfortune of being one of Alan Lerner’s seven (!) wives, and for reasons I don’t know, never appeared on Broadway again. Brooks did a few more shows, but his leading man days ended with Brigadoon. I saw him in a four-character musical called Park, which opened and closed in a weekend in 1970. He was fifty-five then, younger than I am now, and I remember at the time wondering “Who is this wonderful old guy and why have I never heard of him?”
Brigadoon has been produced in New York a number of times over the past seven decades, mainly in limited engagements, either at City Center or at Lincoln Center. For those of a certain age, identification with its 1954 film version that starred Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse is a strong one. And it hasn’t hurt that songs, like “Heather on the Hill,” “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and “It’s Almost Like Being in Love,” have entered into the public’s consciousness due to having been covered by leading singers of the day, such as Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others.
This production’s director/choreographer is Christopher Wheeldon, who electrified audiences two seasons back with An American in Paris. With his background in ballet, Wheeldon reunites here with that production’s lead, Robert Fairchild, who in the dancing role of Harry, gives a forceful and committed performance. In an homage to the show’s original choreographer, one of the theatre and ballet world’s great innovators, Agnes DeMille, Wheeldon has Fairchild rip through his moves with an aggressiveness and a boldness that is a sight to behold. In Brigadoon’s secondary leads, Stephanie J. Block brings back an old-style bawdy brashness to the role of Meg, which made me think of Susan Johnson, who played the role not only in one of its previous City Center revivals, but in a studio recording from 1957 that is my personal favorite to listen to (its leads are sung by Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones). In the non-singing role of Brigadoon’s leading man’s best friend, Assif Mandvi acquitted himself with the appropriate comic moroseness that befits the character; a guy who drinks a bit too much and doesn’t always do or say the right thing.
I won’t soon forget when “It’s Almost Like Being in Love” uncharacteristically stopped the show last night. The thrill of two voices, soaring in unabashed sentiment over a wave of beautiful sound lifted me off to heaven. And what lover of musical theatre doesn’t want to spend a bit of time there?
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.