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Landor Theatre brings a taste of Venice to London



Review by David Munro

STEPHEN Sondheim had to be persuaded to collaborate with Richard Rodgers on this show. At the time, 1964, he had already had two shows on Broadway for which he had written music and lyrics and did not want to regress to a lyricist for another composer.

But pressure from Arthur Laurents the librettist and Mary Rodgers, Richard’s daughter, plus a half promise he had given to Oscar Hammerstein just before he died that he would write lyrics for “Dick” forced him to agree. It proved a big mistake as none of the three collaborators got on, there were continual disagreements as to the style of the show – Rogers wanting it to be romantic whilst the others felt it should be more astringent.

Rodgers also found fault with Sondheim’s lyrics. On one occasion during rehearsals when Sondheim handed Rodgers a new lyric, Rodgers referred to it as C*** in front of the whole cast. But Rodgers was the Producer and therefore had the last word. As a result Sondheim later referred to him as a man “of infinite talent and limited soul".

Do I Hear A Waltz? opened on Broadway in March 1965 and ran for 222 performances but failed to recoup its investment. The main problem seems to have been that what was essentially a chamber musical was blown up with inflated sets and dances shoehorned in for the sake of having dancing, so that it lost the charm and impetus the writers had intended.

The production now at the Landor is based on a version which Laurents and Sondheim revised for a revival in 1999 and which represents their original view of the show. Having seen both versions I infinitely prefer the revised one which is tauter and more dramatic.

The action takes place in Venice and revolves around Leona, an idealistic secretary who has gone there to live the dream she has of the place. She meets and falls for the married owner of a shop but the romance is short lived and she returns to America a wiser and possibly happier person. Also involved with her are the other guests at the Pensione, two married couples whom Laurents uses to exemplify the American abroad, and the cynical but sensual owner of the Pensione.

The cast which Robert McWhir has assembled for his production are with one exception perfect. Anna Stolli as Leona carries the brunt of the action which she does with aplomb and a great deal of charm, making Leona a moving and heart-warming character.

She has a lovely singing voice and an ability to give the lyrics their full effect which is rare these days. She made the imperfections in Leona’s character understandable and proved in so doing that she is also a sensitive actress which should stand her in good stead in the future when she gets the West End leads I am sure she is destined for.

Susan Raasay as Fiora the owner of the Pensione, extracts every ounce of character from the part. She too gets the maximum effect from her lyrics and her wry observations on the guests she accommodates in “This week Americans" is a joy.

 

Eddie and Jennifer Yeager, who were allowed the only dancing in the show, were amusingly and at the same time, realistically portrayed by Alexander Evans and Gabriella Santinelli. Both had good singing voices and a sense of humour which was well exercised in the cynical duet “We’re gonna be alright” cataloguing the compromises required by marriage. Miss Santinelli was most moving in the trio which opens the second act “Moon in my Window” where she, Leona and Fiora reflect on the effects of romance.

As the archetypal tourists, Mr and Mrs Mcllheny, Ian Dring and Zoe Ann Brown avoided caricaturing the roles whilst at the same time emphasizing the aspects of tourism which the more sophisticated find risible, displaying their purchases and organising their days etc. Two well modulated performances .

No Pensione is complete without the maid who doesn’t speak English and muddles up the guest’s affairs and this was no exception. Her name is Giovanna and Julia Riley played her to perfection. Her scene with Leona when Leona tries to extract information was a delight and very funny, as was the trio “No understand” with Alexander Evans and Susan Raasay.

Two minor but telling parts, the venal guide Mauro and the shop assistant, Vito were effectively played by Adam Ellis and Paul Russsell.

I now find myself in a quandary over Daniel Gillingwater as Renato di Rossi, the object of Leona’s affections and the leading man of the show. Mr Gillingwater sang beautifully and acted with warmth and feeling. His scenes with Leona were touching and sincere and yet I never quite believed in him. He was in a sense too “English” to be an Italian philanderer. I felt this was an attempt of casting against type which didn’t quite come off, which is a pity as I liked Mr Gillingwater as a performer but not in this part.

The star of the show must be Robert McWhir who directed with a firm hand and brought the piece stunningly to life. I particularly liked the ending where he makes Leona, who throughout the play has been attempting a crossword puzzle she has torn from a paper, tear it up and scatter the pierces in a gesture of defiance and relief, signifying her turning her back on the past and entering a new life with hope. A lovely piece of business which followed on logically from the final duet “Thank you so much” between Leona and Renato. Thank you, Mr McWhir.

Apart from my mild cavil with regards the leading man, I found this a very rewarding evening and a revelation as to how a little revision and a first class director can turn a flawed work into a very acceptable one. Definitely not a show to be missed and I hope some farsighted impresario will take it into the West End where it deserves to be.

Do I hear A Waltz? - Book by Arthur Laurents (based on his play The Time Of The Cuckoo)
Lyrics – Stephen Sondheim
Music – Richard Rodgers

Director – Robert McWhirr

Musical Direction – David Randall
Choreography – David Lucas
Set Design – Tony Common
Costume Design – Seema Iqbal
Lighting – Richard Lambert

CAST – Anna Stolli, Daniel Gillingwater, Gabriella Santinelli, Alexander Evans, Zoe Ann Brown, Ian Dring, Susan Raasay, Julia Riley, Paul Russell and Connall McCoy.

Landor Theatre – 70 Landor Road – London SW9 9PH
September 7th to October1st at 7.30pm

BOX OFFICE – 020 7737 7276

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