Let’s hear it for Hammerstein

Posted on December 10th, 2010

Leicester’s handsome Curve Theatre is surely unique in allowing its audience a pre-performance glimpse of the “innards” of each production. As we the audience stroll freely around the circular public walkway the backstage areas are exposed to our gaze neatly reversing the traditional idea that we keep the means to the magic well hidden. I wonder what the many parties of school children made of their sneak preview. They must at least have wondered where the “cast of thosands” (well, 40 or so) materialised from. Curve is a magic drum: you can encircle it and wonder how it all comes to life once we are all seated and the overture strikes up.
That Overture of cherished Richard Rodgers tunes fell very differently upon our collective ears as Paul Kerryson’s Christmas offering of The King and I struck up. Music Director Julian Kelly had imagined the bountiful score for a nonet of wind, piano, percussion, and only one stringed instrument – a double bass to add sustaining power. It sounded rich and quirky, almost Stravinskian at times, with the winds and percussion lending that peculiarly Eastern quality and the piano reminding us of grand Western drawing rooms. How good to have something small and original and acoustic and not infected by synthetic samplings to create the illusion of what isn’t there.
But as this much loved confection unfolded I was struck once again by how rich and ambitious and beautifully crafted it is. No one adores Rodgers more than I do (he was surely the most versatile of all popular melodists) but it is the still underrated Oscar Hammerstein II I whose praises I again want to sing for encapsulating this tale of two cultures in two wonderfully perceptive and proud protagonists: Anna and the King. It helps, of course, that they are played here by two resourceful actors – Janie Dee and Chook Sibtain – but the way they were able to focus in the face of a “difficult” and restless audience was testament to their skill and concentration. The dynamic between them, the way in which they slowly but surely give ground to each other and learn from each other, is the essence of Hammerstein’s terrific book – and it still grips and touches every time. Is there a better act one curtain in musical theatre than the moment this proud king finally (but so unexpectedly) fulfills his promise to grant Anna the house she so desires? It isn’t the house but the mutual understanding of what a promise between two people actually means that has one tearing up every time. On the day it was announced that Chicago Lyric Opera are to make a yearly commitment to the art of great musical theatre, beginning with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, I for one was reminded what a dying art it is.

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