REVIEWS: Roberta

Theatre - March 5, 2008
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Aside from six major revivals of Showboat, the shows of Jerome Kern are not seen in New York as often as some of the other golden age composers. In recent years, only Sweet Adeline has turned up at City Center Encores! in 1997 and a stage musical of Kern’s Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Swing Time retitled Never Gonna Dance played Broadway briefly in 2003.

Musicals Tonight! is correcting that oversight with the first New York performances in 20 years of Kern’s beloved Roberta, famed for the classic ballad, “Smoke Get in Your Eyes.” Although both movie versions have been available on video, the 1935 black and white version with Irene Dunne, Astaire and Rogers, and the 1952 MGM color remake, Lovely to Look At, with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, neither of them include the majority of the musicals numbers.

After Showboat, Roberta is probably Kern’s lushest score also including “Yesterdays,” “The Touch of Your Hand,” “You’re Devastating,” and “Lovely to Look At,” the Oscar nominated song written for the 1935 film version. In addition, there are such syncopated numbers as “Now That You’ve Got Me Going/Let’s Begin” and “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.” The lyrics by Otto Harbach, with assists by Bernard Dougall and Dorothy Fields, come trippingly off the tongue.

The problem is with Harbach’s lumpy old-fashioned book which, in telling a story of American fraternity house boys and small town debutantes, Paris fashion models and high society types, radio crooners and Russian aristocracy, awkwardly straddles operetta and musical comedy. Thomas Sabella-Mills’ concert staging for Musical Tonight! can’t disguise this deficiency, but his youthful cast with their powerful voices does full justice to the score. Musical director James Stenborg is in his element with the rich, melodic score which continually pours out of his solo piano.

The musical is based on the novel Gowns by Roberta by Alice Duer Miller, an aunt of Irving Berlin by marriage. Its hero is John Kent, a football hero from New England’s Haverhill College, who travels to Paris to look up his Aunt Minnie, who just happens to be the famous couturiere Madame Roberta. John’s fiancée Sophie Teale, a small town snob, also happens to be there but finds John’s unsophisticated All American ways no longer to her taste. At Madame Roberta’s, John meets his aunt’s manager and designer Stephanie, who happens to be Russian royalty in disguise, and the star of the Café Russe, the spitfire Scharwenka, recently separated from her husband. Both women fall for the handsome, six foot four hero, Stephanie silently and Scharwenka noisily and physically. It is up to John’s college friends and fraternity buddies, crooner Huck Haines and his manager Billie Boyden, who have come to Paris for a musical engagement, to help John steer a clear path through these confusing romantic waters.

As the hick fullback who becomes savvy to the world’s disillusioning ways, strapping Heath Calvert has a pleasing and believable innocence. It isn’t until almost the end of the show that he demonstrates a powerful voice in his one solo, “Something’s Got to Happen.” Marni Raab is both stylish and cool as the regal Stephanie, maintaining a firm hold on her Russian accent. She reveals a lovely coloratura soprano when she sings “You’re Devastating” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Jaclyn Huberman does full justice to the fiery Scharwenka and puts her ample gifts to use in the syncopated, show-stopping numbers, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” and “Hold ‘Em High.” As Ladislaw, Madame Roberta’s doorman and Stephanie’s jealous protector, James Zannelli’s wraps his impressive, full-throated baritone around “The Touch of Your Hand” in his duets with Raab.

Following in the large shoes of Bob Hope for whom the role of wise-cracking Huck Haines was first created, James Donegan obtains all his laughs but doesn’t find a suitable comic style. Aaron Galligan-Stierle as his manager and sidekick has a much funnier delivery for his one-liners. In her all too brief appearance as Aunt Minnie, Diane Findlay is elegant and classy, delivering a touching rendition of the haunting ballad, “Yesterdays.” In non-singing roles, Jenny Neale keeps the snobbish Sophie from being too obnoxious, while William McCauley brings authority to Lord Henry, Madame Roberta’s long-time friend and confidant. Appearing in specialty numbers, Elena Mindlina delivers a memorable cabaret performance of “Smoke Get in Your Eyes” translated into both Russian and French, while Erika Zabelle steals the celebrity singers’ number, “Don’t Ask Me Not to Sing” with her Betty Boop impersonation.

Although this concert staging places the fashion show sequence offstage, the show offers attractive and colorful 1930’s cocktail length dresses and a few long gowns courtesy of the tdf Costume Collection and Materials for the Arts. By contemporary standards, Roberta is extremely dated, but the score by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach remains eternally young. For those of us who still yearn to get up and waltz when we hear sumptuous melodies, this one is for us.

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