Here’s the storyline:
Out of nowhere into the life of a meek young fellow comes a vivacious, unconventional young woman who attaches herself to him and puts him in compromising situations. With his spirit and libido aroused, he realizes that he needs to dump the shrill-voiced shrew he’s engaged to.
It’s the plot of the 1972 movie What’s Up, Doc? (with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal) — one of our very favorites — and also of the 1938 film Bringing Up Baby (with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant).
And it’s also the plot of the only musical play the Shaw Festival is putting on this summer, One Touch of Venus, which is something of a forgotten classic. (Forgotten, probably, because it’s a little too risque for high school drama clubs; we guess that more people see musical plays in high school auditoriums than anywhere else.)
Like a lot of the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, the story is thin and the characters tend to be cliches rather than real people — we’re thinking, for example, the role of Molly Grant (Deborah Hay), an archetype of the hard-boiled, sharp-tongued assistant who is probably in love with her boss. This is not one of the “great” American musicals, we wouldn’t say. But the songs and Kurt Weill’s music are wonderful, there are some fine comic scenes, and the Shaw Festival’s production is energetic and full of good performances.
The centerpiece of the show is Venus, a priceless statue that wealthy Manhattanite Whitelaw Savory (Mark Uhre) has acquired on the black market for his private art gallery, which is otherwise devoted to modern art. (This art museum junkie’s heart was warmed to see Whitelaw’s studio strewn with reproductions of Matisse’s “Dance” and other masterpieces by Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, and (we think) Robert Delaunay and Paul Klee (somebody tell us if we’re right!). The show’s first big song-and-dance number, “New Art Is True Art,” makes fun of modern art’s supposed disdain for traditional art.
No sooner is the love goddess’s statue delivered to the gallery and removed from her crate than a mild-mannered barber, Rodney Hatch (Kyle Blair) arrives at the studio to give Whitelaw a shave. Left alone with the statue, Rodney pulls out an engagement ring that he has just bought for his fiancée and impulsively puts it on the statue’s finger. Amids pyrotechnics, Venus (Robin Evan Willis) comes to life and promptly falls for Rodney, whose ring has apparently broken an ancient spell. She heads off through Manhattan (pausing on her way to sing “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”) and reappears in Rodney’s apartment, where she tries to seduce him.
Meanwhile, Rodney Hatch is chased both by detectives who think he has stolen the statue and by Turks wielding daggers who are seeking to recover their stolen goddess. The chase leads to “Catch Hatch,” a long, frenetic dance sequence featuring much of the cast that is a highlight of the show. In one of the play’s funniest scenes, Rodney goes to the bus station to pick up his stunning but ill-tempered fiancée Gloria (Julie Martell) and his impossible future mother-in-law (perfectly played by Gabrielle Jones); their reunion is interrupted when Venus suddenly materializes. Rodney extricates himself from Gloria, but his romance with Venus hits a snag when the goddess realizes to her dismay that Rodney wants to install her as a housewife in Ozone Heights, a dreary subdivision on Staten Island.
As Venus, Robin Evan Willis is the full package, a stunning, sensuous blonde whose voice has all the range that Kurt Weill’s songs need. We enjoyed all her numbers, including One Touch of Venus‘s best-known song, “Speak Low.” She is well-matched with Kyle Blair, a fine comic actor with a pleasant tenor voice. We got a kick out of an excellent comic barbershop quartet number (sung in Rodney Hatch’s barbershop), “The Trouble With Women.” The lyrics of the last verse:
When I drove in my glamorous Chevy
I would park in a suitable spot
Then I’d turn to the girls like a heavy
And inquire if they would or would not
I always implied that they had to
But, oh jiminies, was I perplexed
On the night that one said she’d be glad to
I didn’t know what to do next
For the first time that we can remember with a Shaw Festival musical, though, we had issues with both the tempos and the balance on several songs. On the show’s first several numbers, we simply couldn’t make out what the actors were singing; the orchestra was too loud, and the lyrics went by too quickly. The problem was especially acute on Rodney’s ragtime-style “How Much I Love You,” whose lyrics by Ogden Nash are made up of one witty, rapid-fire simile after another. If music director Ryan deSouza plays Scott Joplin, he ought to be familiar with the instruction Joplin usually inscribed on the sheet music for his rags: “It is never right to play ‘rag-time’ fast.”
We weren’t the only people at our preview performance with trouble hearing lyrics; all around us, people weren’t laughing at the comic songs for exactly the same reason. (It wasn’t a problem with “The Trouble With Women,” though.) Mind, we don’t suggest amplifying the performers; we like to hear vocals coming from mouths instead of speakers. And we thought the singers were projecting well enough. But perhaps a smaller orchestra would have suited the show in this venue. A three-piece rhythm section, a trumpet player, and a woodwind player would have done nicely.
We also questioned the pace of Robin Evan Willis’s first featured solo, “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.” This is a bluesy number whose mildly suggestive lyrics didn’t seem to have maximum impact at the relatively brisk tempo set by the band.
We ran across an excellent essay on “One Touch of Venus” by Mark N. Grant (see this link), which we recommend, and from which we learned that the inspiration for “Speak Low” was the line “Speak low, if you speak love,” from Act II, Scene 1 of “Much Ado About Nothing,” spoken by Don Pedro to Hero. We were also pleased to find that the original Broadway cast recording of One Touch of Venus, featuring Mary Martin in her first major role, is still available; we’ve been listening to it on Rhapsody.
Emsworth’s pre-season thoughts on all the shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2010 season are at this post.