Never walking alone as you climb every mountain may not be your chosen form of exercise, but there's no arguing with the influence of the music of Richard Rodgers on-not just American-but also world musical theater. "If we take for granted now that a musical can fuse dialogue, song and dance in the service of dramatic narrative, it is because Rodgers and Hammerstein made it as inevitable as television," write Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright in their book Changing Stages: A View of British and American Theatre in the Twentieth Century.
Under the baton of Summerfest's musical director William Curry, the North Carolina Symphony, who had just two weeks earlier celebrated George Gershwin, presented a centennial celebration (almost to the day) of Rodgers' birth. It included music from just about every musical he was ever involved in. We say "just about" because not included was music from Rodgers' post-Hammerstein era, during which the composer never managed to light the spark he had had with his major collaborator. The program included Rodgers' Overture No. 2, two medleys from The King and I and The Sound of Music , the opening to Carousel and a selection of solos and duets from Too Many Girls , Oklahoma , South Pacific , The King and I , Cinderella and Carousel . The singers were tenor Craig Schulman, the only actor in the US to have portayed three of Andrew Lloyd Webber heroes - The phantom in Phantom of the Opera, Jean Valjean in Les Mis and the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde - and Broadway actress, soprano Kim Crosby, the creator of R&H's Cinderella as well as the same character in Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods .
Despite John Lambert's positive report from last week's Summerfest concert, we were skittish about the sound system that had performed so disastrously at the Gershwin concert. Fortunately, we are able to confirm that tremendous strides have been made in correcting the major problems: the music now sounds as if it comes from the stage and not from heaven, and the people at the pricey tables on the terrace can now actually hear what's playing. We wandered around the whole area and the sound was clear and focused nearly everywhere. Sure there is still some tweaking necessary, but the NCS has placed either Curry or Assistant Conductor Jeffrey Pollock - depending which one is on the podium - at the sound mixing board to guide sound engineer Ed Strickland in adapting the system for the changing artistic conditions throughout the concert.
Just how critical that adaptation can be was clearly audible during the concert. For the first number, "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'," Schulman sounded completely natural, but some inappropriate tweaks rendered his next number, "Younger than Springtime," metallic and echoing, a problem that was fixed after intermission. And there's still a lot of work needed to get the violin solos to sound as if they aren't produced by a synthesizer. We are not so much carping as noting how vulnerable live musicians become the minute they have to resort to amplification of any kind.
That being said, the concert was thoroughly enjoyable with just the right mix of vocal and instrumental numbers. There was also a good balance between the sentimental and mildly humorous in the vocal numbers ("If I Loved You" and "When the Children are Asleep" from Carousel). Crosby was particularly successful at changing her vocal style to fit the personality of the characters she portrayed, a real advantage since R&H's heroines are usually less soupy than their heros - except for Maria, whom Crosby, thankfully, chose not to portray. It would have been more interesting to have included one of Rodgers' works not written for musical theater, such as Slaughter on Tenth Avenue or Victory at Sea, but this almost capacity audience came out for the old favorites. And we seem to be the only people who think there ought to be a ten-year ban on anything from The Sound of Music.
When we reviewed the Gershwin concert two weeks ago, we refused to discuss the NCS sound because we simply couldn't hear it. This time it was a pleasure to listen to them, especially the woodwinds, with conductor Curry showing exceptional sensitivity to the singers both in dynamic balance and in timing.
There are four more concerts in the Summerfest series (June 29, July 4, 6 and 13). Bring a picnic and some chairs or blankets and join the crowd. It's a lot of fun. Schulman, too, will return in mid July for the North Carolina Theater's original production, Children of Eden (see http://www.nctheatre.com/ ).