Radiant in the first production of its new era, the once-celebrated and more recently dark Bucks County Playhouse has reopened in its former New Hope gristmill on the Delaware River. The theater itself is spiffy in an air-conditioned redo, the company is once again professional with an Actors' Equity contract — and the debut show is a winner.
That musical revue, A Grand Night for Singing, is packed with more than 30 tunes by composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. Despite its simplicity as a basic song list and nothing more, the Playhouse production. directed by Lonny Price. raises the bar so high that almost every song is performed as its own playlet. You're told dozens of stories in two acts with virtually no dialogue, with a cast of five — four with Broadway credits and a fifth surely on his way — and a six-member orchestra on myriad instruments.
The Playhouse's new producing director, Jed Bernstein — for years the leader of Broadway's association of producers — wanted to reopen by honoring Rodgers and Hammerstein, who lived in the area along with other theater luminaries for whom the Bucks County Playhouse was a sort of country-house stage and proving ground for Broadway work after its founding 73 years ago.
Bernstein also wanted a show with live music, and one that had not been given an amateur production there in recent decades. He succeeded in both goals; the orchestra provides lush backing for the songs, and if I were laying odds, I'd go with Rodgers and Hammerstein smiling somewhere up there.
A Grand Night for Singing has been a pliable vehicle, entertaining but not especially ambitious, since the Roundabout Theatre Company brought it to Broadway in 1993 for 93 performances. Only days before it opened at Bucks County Playhouse last week, the Walnut Street Theatre finished running its own sweet, low-wattage production in its 80-seat Independence Studio, with four singers backed by a pianist. Together they delivered the music as a concert in the intimate space. The Walnut moved 13 songs around from the original production, for reasons not obvious.
The Playhouse rearranges the tunes, too, almost all through the second act, also for no clear reason. But Bucks County Playhouse's proscenium-stage theater is five times larger than the Walnut's third-floor space, and this is no concert rendering. It's a terrific compendium of fresh interpretations that emphasize the show in the phrase show tune.
South Pacific's "Some Enchanted Evening" is a perfect example — you've probably heard it countless times. Yet the cast makes it a stirring end to the first act, and the song, like the Playhouse, is wholly renewed.
In the little stories they tell through the songs, the singers employ some modern accompaniment — most effectively, cellphones; every one of them gets an e-mail picture of Ron Bohmer's "Honey Bun" to prove that she really is 101 pounds of fun as he sings, smitten by her. Kenita R. Miller's jazz version of "Kansas City" brings things coolly up to date. "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" is a ride in itself in Greg Bosworth's delivery. Erin Davie turns the stagestruck "It's Me" into a smooth and funny tale, and Courtney Balan's "Something Wonderful" is just that.
Those are only a few of many highlights, led with just-right pacing by music director Phil Reno. The singers look great in Nicole V. Moody's costumes, a mix of formal and highly stylized casual; something about them says New Hope.
And in their performances, the singers easily demonstrate the versatility that makes me long for partnerships like Rodgers and Hammerstein, who employed no single style and no two of whose songs sound alike. If there's any frustration with A Grand Night for Singing, it's that on your way out, you'll have trouble deciding which one to hum first.