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Pasadena Playhouse Artistic Director Sheldon Epps affirms his way with a musical by a rare and welcome revival of the 1965 Richard Rodgers/Stephen Sondheim musical Do I Hear A Waltz? based on Arthur Laurents 1952 play The Time of the Cuckoo. David Lee, whose recent credits include writer/director/producer and Emmy-winner on such series as Cheers and Frasier, selected it for his second directorial outing at the Playhouse, following a highly acclaimed production of Light Up The Sky. If you loved David McLean's movie Summertime starring Katherine Hepburn and Rossano Brazzi, you'll have food for thought in the depths and complexities in the musical version, for which Laurents wrote the book.
Leona (Alyson Reed), an exuberant but lonely secretary savoring her first trip to Italy, is predictably vulnerable to a charming Italian of a certain age, Renato Di Rossi (Anthony Crivello). Renato's sleazy side is revealed early on when the 17th century goblet he foists on Leona turns out to be mass produced for such tourists as the McIlhennys (Elmarie Wendel and Jack Riley). Another home truth inadvertently reveals the wife and many children Renato has at home. But simpatico speaks and the two hear in each other that waltz that has been silent for so many years.
The production takes place for the most part on the patio of the Pension Fioria in Venice in 1961. Fellow guests include young painter Eddie Yeager and his Barbie-esque wife Jennifer; Fiona, the elegant chatelaine of the Pension; Mauro, the street urchin who serves as Leona's guide and small clear sliver of truth; Giovanna, a loping young waitress who springs to life only at the ring of her lover Alfredo.
Leona's character is more balanced in this version. Her friendliness, her exuberance, her eagerness for life and love are the bright side. On the dark side, she drinks too much, explodes with anger, tattles on the philandering Eddie and Fiona and, the through line in all three versions, play, film and musical, brings her Puritanical American values to Europe.
Laurents' bottom line is the confrontation between those values and the Italian carpe diem (seize the day). Accepting the joy means accepting the pain. It's called reality and Leona finally goes into it with her eyes open.
This is a beautiful play and it's a pleasure to hear the complexity of Sondheim's lyrics. Although none of the tunes rank with Rodgers' finest, there's nothing to dispute his statement, "I can pee a melody".
Lee has assembled his cast astutely. With the help of shrewd character development by playwright Laurents, Alyson Reed creates a very solid mid-Western Leona. Anthony Crivello, Tony-winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman, is a slightly smarmy, needy and irresistible Renato. His dazzling voice ends Act I with a breath-taking tenor aria. Carol Lawrence, graceful and vibrant, makes an ageless beauty of the sensuous innkeeper Fioria and gets a chance to show her famous dancing skills in Kay Cole's delightfully choreographed curtain call.
The supporting characters are clichéd but extremely well-directed and vocally superb. Elmarie Wendel is especially deft in overcoming the stereotype, seconding Leona as the warm, enthusiastic, slightly dippy American tourist Mrs. McIlhenny. Set designer Roy Christopher lends nuch-needed variety to the show's single set with an arched bridge over the canal and warm Umbrian earth tones.