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"A Grand Night for Singing," one of the rousing numbers from Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 film musical State Fair, captures perfectly the mood set by Long Leaf Opera's July 1 conclusion to its two-week-long festival in and around Chapel Hill. In fact, I think I could scarcely have put in better.
That title song, one of many heard over the course of a two-hour revue staged in UNC's Memorial Hall for three recent performances, served as the framework for a clever roundup comprising many of the afore-mentioned musical theater duo's best and brightest inspirations. Included, in addition to two extracts from State Fair, were the obligatory "tunes" from Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, and also, for good measure, some of the lesser stand-up-and-sing variety, including numbers from Cinderella, Flower Drum Song, Me and Juliet, and Allegro.
Looking back, searching through my memory bank, I recall that Long Leaf Opera, in its infancy, had presented an evening at the Durham Arts Council also under the title "A Grand Night for Singing." That special event, the brainchild of local pianist/composer Richard Wall, married a variety of musical styles together, while this current effort was entirely different and — to paraphrase the Broadway duo under review — also "something [quite] wonderful."
So, where did this show originate? Unlike the earlier entertainment, it was not a fundraiser designed to promote this local opera company. By now, Long Leaf Opera is doing so well, thank you, that it stands on its own — although, please don't misunderstand, for operatic groups large and small are always in need of support, to be sure. The current "Grand Night," a familiar entity by now on the regional circuit, was first heard in New York in 1993, commissioned for that city's Roundabout Theatre Company by Walter Bobbie, with musical matters tended to by Fred Wells, Michael Gibson, and Jonathan Tunick, all well-known faces in Manhattan theatrical circles.
In fact, this version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon has been previously seen in these parts, as recently as a few short years ago, at the Temple Theater in Sanford. There it received worthy treatment, I recall, with a quintet of singers-actors who actually sang — rather than belting — their assignments, and with direction that was subtle yet clever without ever pandering to its audience.
Fortunately, this same blue-print was pressed into service for Long Leaf's Chapel Hill dates. The last of these, heard July 1 in UNC's Memorial Hall, showed the company at its considerable best. Chief amongst the reason for plaudits was Julie Bradley's sensitive direction of her singers and an equally fine ensemble, the Winston-Salem-based Carolina Chamber Symphony.
Taking as its backdrop a sort of boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-wins-girl motif, director Donna Shannon arranged her singers as real people but within a framework wherein they adorned a vine-covered trellis while singing of love and desire. The original scenarios built into the musicals altered a bit to an updated timeframe, they — and the songs — nonetheless carried convincingly, thanks in large part to soloists one came to care for and about.
Borrowing from the style of artists as diverse as the Andrews Sisters and Manhattan Transfer and on through Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, and Ethel Merman, the five "Grand Night" singers charmed, thrilled, and endeared as they should. I particularly liked Marguerite Wilbanks, Tara Siesener, and Brian Norris who, together and separately, had a distinctive way of "putting across" the material with a minimum of fuss. Honesty is what these artists were about in all they did, and it crossed the footlights.
Slightly less successful were baritone Steven Jepson and soprano Elizabeth Grayson, but only because their classically-trained voices didn't — even with the aid of discreet amplification — seem to have the carrying-power of their colleagues'. This was a curious point to me, I must admit, as one normally thinks of "operatic" voices as being able to "ride" musical climaxes with ease. At times, both Jepson and Grayson did in fact accomplish this, but the sounds they produced nevertheless tended to thin as they climbed the scale. Granted, this is not simple music to perform (though it must always seem so to the audience), and both artists were lovely in isolated moments. The overall impression, however, was that they were oddly-paired with the others, whose training came from a more finely-tuned musical theater bent and therefore seemed more "authentic."
Before the curtain rose, Long Leaf's Artistic Director Randolph Umberger discussed the company's future and, by all accounts, it appears to be all-systems-go for brightness. "Opera about Americans for Americans" is how Umberger summed up the group's current mission, and while the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein is a slight stretch in a complementary direction, the point was clearly made, all the same.
If Long Leaf can continue to present quality of the level heard here, local patrons are in for a treat. I, for one, having watched Long Leaf — like the little train that could — climb the hill over the past few years, believe it's possible.