Thanks to snazzy staging by first-time director Lauren Kennedy and effervescent comic characterizations by Brian Myers Cooper, Stacey Harris, Michael Jones, and Tatiana Guy, the current Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presentation of Romance Romance is the best production to date of HSN’s third season. This utterly delightful romantic comedy, with music by Keith Herrmann and lyrics and book by Barry Harman, consists of two warm and witty one-act musicals. The curtain-raiser is “The Little Comedy,” which is set in turn-of-the-20th-century Vienna and based on a short story by Austrian dramatist and novelist Arthur Schnitzler; the closer is “Summer Share,” which is set in the Hamptons in the present day and based on Le Pain de ménage by French playwright Jules Renard.
“The Little Comedy” and “Summer Share” are two very different musicals, and director Lauren Kennedy stages them with brio in two very different styles. In the exquisitely mannered “Little Comedy,” a wealthy aristocrat named Alfred Von Wilmers (Brian Myers Cooper) pretends to be a poor working-class poet in order to romance Josefine Weninger (Stacey Harris), an actress and, until very recently, a kept woman who pretends to be a seamstress in a milliner’s shop. Alfred cannot write a sonnet to save his life; and Josefine cannot sew a stitch, so their gay dissembling provokes bellylaughs as they promenade down — and dance a vigorous polka through — the streets of Old Vienna and later vacation for a week at a rustic country inn.
Brian Cooper and Stacey Harris are two highly personable performers — in fact, Cooper is tall, blonde, and debonair; and Harris is cute as a bug and has personality plus. Together, they make Alfred and Josefine a pair of charming cads. During their increasingly comical campaign of mutual deception, the sly fox Alfred confides his cynical stratagems, via frequent wry letters, to his best friend Teddy in Naples; and the cunning vixen Josefine likewise confesses in cheeky missives to her most intimate confidant Helene in Paris.
Meanwhile, Michael Jones and Tatiana Guy provide strong support in multiple roles. Jones adds an acid portrait of Josefine’s fickle former sugar daddy Emil and a jovial back-slapping turn as Alfred’s carousing friend Fritz, and Guy is amusing as Josefine’s long-suffering maid and especially as Fritz’s hot-blooded inamorata Mitzi, who shamelessly flirts with Alfred whenever the threesome is painting the town.
In “Summer Share,” Brian Cooper and Stacey Harris play Sam and Monica, best friends since college but happily married to Barb (Tatiana Guy) and Lenny (Michael Jones). So, it is a surprise when late one night, after their spouses have put their children to bed and turned in themselves, powerful romantic feelings bubble up between Monica and Sam, whose friendship has always been platonic. If “The Little Comedy” is as light and fluffy and delicious as a Viennese pastry, “Summer Share” is a bittersweet exploration of long-suppressed feelings whose sudden surfacing provides a nearly irresistible temptation for Sam and Monica.
Copper and Harris handle the comic banter and serious overtones of their “Summer Share” roles with aplomb, and Jones and Guy get their comic kicks during their cameo appearances as the unsuspecting spouses, but especially in one scene where they bring the house down with their outrageous antics as the cranky codgers that Lenny and Barb might evolve into in another quarter-century or so.
Smart musical staging by director Lauren Kennedy and frisky dance routines by choreographer Matthew-Jason Willis combine with the superlative vocal phrasing of all four cast members and the exuberant instrumental accompaniment by musical director/pianist McCrae Hardy and cohorts to make Romance Romance the surprise musical hit of the summer. A simple but quite effective set and lighting design by Curtis Lee Jones and an impressive array of vintage and modern costumes by Casey Watkins and Kristin Grieneisen also enhance this stylish production, whose opening-night performance July 5th received a well-deserved standing ovation.
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents Romance Romance Friday-Saturday, July 6-7, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 8, at 3 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, July 10-14, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 15, at 3 p.m. in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 1 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $27.50, except $20 Sunday matinees and senior group rates. Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919/831-6060. GROUP RATES: 919/828-3726. Note 1: There will be FREE complimentary beverages and desserts at all intermissions. Note 2: There will be a Sunday Show Special on July 8th. Patrons who buy two $20 tickets will also receive a FREE lunch, starting at 2 p.m. Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy: http://www.hotsummernightsatthekennedy.org/shows.html#rr [inactive 2/10]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=7602. Internet Movie Database (1992 TV Movie): http://imdb.com/title/tt0198984/. Lauren Kennedy: http://www.laurenkennedy.com/ (her web site), http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=70340 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://imdb.com/name/nm0448171/ (Internet Movie Database). Brian Myers Cooper: http://www.myspace.com/brianmyerscooper. Stacey Harris: http://www.stacey-harris.com/stacey/s-navbar4.htm.