'A GRAND NIGHT FOR SINGING'
When: Through March 10
Where: The Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport
Info: (773) 325-1700; www.mercurytheaterchicago.com
Run time: 1:50 with one intermission
Talk about racing out of the starting gate. With its stunningly sung, ingeniously staged production of "A Grand Night for Singing" -- a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue that is full of familiar tunes, yet anything but predictable -- The Mercury Theater, long a frequently dark rental house, has initiated an ambitious subscription series.
The intimate theater, overseen by L. Walter Stearns, will now produce its own Equity scale revivals of Broadway musicals and other shows on a year-round basis -- opening up additional opportunities for Chicago's impressive pool of musical talent and upping the competition for the big suburban musical venues, and such well-established city-based companies as Porchlight Music Theatre, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and others.
Now, you might be thinking: "Isn't kicking things off with the Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire an overly safe choice?" Think again. This show (conceived in 1993 by Broadway veteran Walter Bobbie, and premiered by New York's Roundabout Theatre), brings winningly fresh, modern and imaginative interpretations to 30 mostly well-known (plus a few rarely heard) tunes. And though most of the songs have been removed from the context of the shows for which they were written -- and in many cases zestfully re-orchestrated -- their emotional spirit and essential intention remains faithful, even as they are infused with new life.
Kevin Bellie, the gifted director and demanding choreographer who worked for years on Circle Theatre's small stage, here has a chance to work on a grander scale, and he has crafted many indelible moments. His expert cast of five -- with Broadway, national tour and Chicago credits -- works every emotional and physical angle for him. And the onstage orchestra -- led superbly by Elizabeth Doran, the elegant, expressive conductor-pianist (with Eugene Dizon as musical director) -- is perfection
Not surprisingly, romantic relationships in all their guises -- comical, rueful, flirtatious, disappointing, passionate, enduring -- serve as the essential thread that ties all these songs together.
It all begins with a playful take on "Surrey With the Fringe On Top" from "Oklahoma," and then moves on to an edgy, contemporary version of "Stepsisters' Lament" (from "Cinderella"); an unusually winning rendering of "Maria" from "The Sound of Music" sung not by nuns, but by a man in love with a girl; and that sassy admission by Ado Annie, "I Cain't Say No," also from "Oklahoma," belted out by Marya Grandy, who possesses a voice of formidable range and power. Deftly cynical takes on love come with "Don't Marry Me" (from "Flower Drum Song") and "The Gentleman Is a Dope," from "Allegro" (sung by the hugely charismatic Leah Morrow, a superb dancer with a terrific voice and easy comic flair).
The classic 'Shall We Dance?" from 'The King and I" is now interpreted as a very funny scene about a short man (Stephen Schellhardt, often the guy left behind) who pairs up with a considerably taller woman (Heather Townsend, a fine soprano not quite at ease with her height). In the show's second act, Robert Hunt brings his formidable baritone to "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'" and "This Nearly Was Mine." And there is much, much more in this show that once again reminds you that Rodgers and Hammerstein were truly "Something Wonderful."
Note: Coming up this season will be "Barnum" (March 27-June 30), the rarely revived Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart circus musical; "The Color Purple" (Aug. 14-Nov. 10); and the annual holiday show, "The Christmas Schooner" (Nov. 22-Dec. 29). Flex Pass subscriptions are available at $80 for three shows or $100 for all four.