Review: Walnut show lives up to its billing

Michael Philip O’Brien, Rebecca Robbins, Jennie Eisenhower and Fran Prisco in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s A Grand Night for Singing at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Michael Philip O’Brien, Rebecca Robbins, Jennie Eisenhower and Fran Prisco in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s A Grand Night for Singing at Walnut Street Theatre. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Posted: May 05, 2012

It’s a Grand Night for Singing at the Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio, and it no doubt will remain so for the run of this cozy Rodgers and Hammerstein revue. Winding through nearly 40 of the legendary team’s tunes, this production is fueled by amorous intentions, driven by a quartet featuring three of Philly’s favorite performers — Jennie Eisenhower, Fran Prisco, and Michael Philip O’Brien (he’s also artistic director of the all-musical 11th Hour Theatre Company) — and Rebecca Robbins, a fine, flame-haired New York import and Walnut regular.

Originally presented cabaret-style by Walter Bobbie in the early 1990s at Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow and Stars before its move to Broadway, the show spans the duo’s career, from hits to hidden gems. For every “Some Enchanted Evening,” that best-beloved showstopper from South Pacific, there’s a lesser-known but no less-charming heartbreaker, such as Allegro’s “The Gentleman Is a Dope,” sung here by Eisenhower with just the right blend of sass and sadness. The Sound of Music,Carousel, State Fair, The King and I, Cinderella, Oklahoma — they’re all represented, plus more, and if nothing else, the evening offers a reminder of the breadth of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s declarations of love.

Director Bruce Lumpkin’s effort celebrates songwriting’s glory days, and his design team enhances this class act with a supper-club vibe, starting with Robert Kramer’s set — underlit palms, wicker ceiling fans, and cabaret tables with slipcovered chairs and chinoiserie tablecloths. Mary Folino’s nipped, tucked array of evening gowns in peach silks, rhinestone-bedecked amber pleats, and fire-engine red draping, adds sumptuous flair, the ladies pin-curled and victory-rolled to perfection, their escorts dinner-jacketed, with pocket squares to match each dress.

Get ’em singing and harmonizing, and you’ve got something wonderful, all right. If Prisco’s voice runs a little ragged around the edges, he’s still resonant enough to carry off the biggies and inject some swagger into comic ditties, such as Flower Drum Song’s “Don’t Marry Me.” If O’Brien’s no powerhouse, Lumpkin highlights his gentler qualities early on, particularly during “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” in which he cajoles an older audience member into joining him onstage, wrapping an arm around her for the ride’s duration. There’s not much interplay between the performers to bind these songs into some sort of narrative, but honestly, with a catalog like this, who cares?

Backed by David Jenkins’ nimble piano-playing, that surrey starts at a quick clip, and, aside from an intermission, never slows down until the title song’s reprise. Nonetheless, it’s an exceptionally smooth ride.


It’s a Grand Night for Singing

Through June 24 at Walnut Street Theatre’s Independence Studio, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $35-$50. Information: 800-982-2787 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.

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