DOUGLAS SILLS AND KRISTIN CHENOWETH IN ‘MUSIC IN THE AIR’ (Photo by Sara Krulwich)
Kristen Chenoweth is an admittedly unusual-looking little thing – tiny, with the almost over-sized head which Edward Albee once told me was common to a lot of the biggest stars of them all: Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Norma Shearer, Gloria Swanson. She has an inexhaustibly perky, impish persona, more like a fun kid sister than a conventionally alluring leading lady. But…
When she opens her mouth and sings, she is instantly covered in stardust and becomes the most glamorous creature in the universe, for the lustrous, perfectly placed sound emanating from her. All thoughts of “conventional beauty” or statuesque languor disappear and seem but the most synthetic of qualities – the mere possessions of any commercial model – when confronted by the true magic a very special human being is capable of.
She brought all of these qualities and much more to a role which, ironically, the aforementioned Swanson played in a 1934 film version, Frieda Hatzfeld in the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical, MUSIC IN THE AIR, which Encores! revived at City Center. At a charming audience talkback after the show, she confessed how happy she was to finally play the role of a real woman, the older age of which enabled her to employ parts of her voice she ordinarily wasn’t able to use. Her relief was mirrored by many in the audience, including myself, who felt that this potentially greatest of current Broadway stars had finally, truly grown up.
She was obviously having a ball playing a temperamental diva, brimming over with ego and quick to appreciate the charms of a young hunk or two. She wore a brunette wig, which like the dark hair Ingrid Bergman sported in SARATOGA TRUNK, her funniest performance, seemed to unleash her into a sensuality and sophisticated sense of fun she’s never really exhibited before. The comic timing, familiar since her breakthrough role in YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN, is honed to a fare-thee-well by now, to a point where she has no need to push for laughs, and her fits of pique or jealousy had a beautifully relaxed, high comedy sheen to them that Ina Claire herself might have smiled upon.
Her Frieda had a very apt love object in the person of Ryan Silverman, the latest, very special entry in that seemingly inexhaustible stream of talented handsomeness which continually blesses the New York theatrical world. arriving daily on bus, plane and train fulls of starry-eyed hopefuls. Silverman’s fetching voice rang out appealingly on the piquant “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star,” one of the show’s two best-remembered songs (the other is the swooningly overripe “The Song is You”), and he played the role of schoolteacher Karl with a fresh, innocent seriousness that stripped what might have been a boringly upright, conventional juvenile role of any tiresome corn. The same can be said of Sierra Boggess, who freed from her fishtail and hideous LITTLE MERMAID tonnage, sparkled with dewy ingenuousness and sang like a silver bell, the perfect, adorably clueless mate for Silverman.
Tom Alan Robbins’ charming accent and performance had a rich, Germanic authenticity that was both a blessing and a relief these days, with the cartoonishness of films like THE READER and THE GOOD GERMAN, not to mention Mercedes Ruehl’s indecipherable jawing in THE AMERICAN PLAN. Douglas Sills, as the egocentric playwright Bruno Mahler, more or less reprised his performance as Oscar Jaffe in the recent ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY and, if his voice may have been a little shaky, his spirit certainly was not. (He was very funny in the talkback when people from the Oscar Hammerstein Foundation discussed the Byzantine intricacy of the score, especially the cadenced moments of rhymed dialogue. When music director Rob Berman told him how to say, “Look/at/that/regal/eagle/there,” a disgruntled Sills initially said, “Are you giving me a line reading?”) Marni Nixon, in a cameo role originally slated for Sally Ann Howes, got an affectionate round of applause upon her entrance, although it’s sad to say that is she who rather needs to be dubbed these days.
The show, although lighter than air, possesses a definite charm, especially when as adroitly performed, directed and produced as this one was, one of Encores! best efforts in years. Critics like Ben Brantley in The New York Times have been particularly patronizing to it, as so many so often are to anything that even smacks of operetta. The talk back session was particularly enlightening in this regard, with much pointing out of themes here, like the Tyrolean countryside and nature, which would find their way into later works of Oscar Hammerstein’s, like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and Kern’s inescapable, surging musical mastery. Sure, it’s filled with happy villagers and even – God forbid! – has a sung prayer of goodwill, but, when presented without condescension, its pure, human values and the skill of its execution (we’re talking Kern and Hammerstein, okay??) seem a heaven-sent respite from easy cynicism.
A special member of the talk back audience – the kind of person who make such events so special and so very “only in New York” – was Frances Tannehill, the last surviving member of the original 1932 production, who was ten years old at the time. And then there was Chenoweth, looking smashingly the star in a black satin jumpsuit (Balenciaga?) and killer patent boots, who said she got offered this job at the time when she learned that her TV show, PUSHING DAISIES, was going off the air. “That’s show biz,” she said, “but when I found out that my director was to be Gary Griffin with whom I did THE APPLE TREE and that Rob Berman, who was music director on that, was also involved, there was no question!”
By the way, the subject of the 1934 film of MUSIC IN THE AIR came up, and someone snarkily said, “If you ever have a chance to see it, don’t interrupt any other plans you may have.” Unfair! If nothing else, it was Billy Wilder’s first Hollywood credit (as screenwriter) and the fact that he wrote it for Swanson, playing a temperamental diva 16 years before he did SUNSET BOULEVARD with her, playing an even more temperamental one, is of major interest. If nothing else, the film has that early talkie Fox visual sheen to it and Swanson, at her most lacquered, with her astonishing blinding white grimace and rock crystal eyes (to match her famous Cartier bracelets), a star to her fingertips, luxuriantly garbed by her favorite designer, Rene Hubert, and demonstrating that, along with everything else, she could sing, too. There’s a lovely moment when, disappointed by the men in her life, both old (Bruno) and young (Karl), yet again, she instructs her maid to pack up the Vuitton and sings a liltingly sans-souci “I’m Alone.” (In the Encores! Chenoweth gave it a more powerfully operatic thrust.)
GLORIA SWANSON, GOWNED BY RENE HUBERT, IN ‘MUSIC IN THE AIR’ (1934)