Musical revue hopes to hook summer audiences

University Theatre at Kansas University was looking for the kind of show that would pull audiences away from movie theaters and baseball fields this summer.

"A Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue really fits that bill," said Leslie Bennett, director and choreographer of "A Grand Night for Singing," which opens Friday at the Inge Theatre.

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Melissa Lacey/Journal-World Photo

The cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "A Grand Night for Singing" performs a number from their upcoming musical. Pictured are, from left, musical director Michael D. Johnson, Kelli Berry, Dylan Hilpman, Julia Hardin, Michelle Nikoomanesh and Evan Grosshans. The University Theatre production opens at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Inge Theatre at Kansas University.

The Tony Award-nominated show premiered in 1993 at New York's Roundabout Theatre in celebration of the 50th anniversary of "Oklahoma!" The production is unique, Bennett said, because of its arrangements of well-known (and a few obscure) Rodgers and Hammerstein songs.

"The guy that put it together, Walter Bobbie, really took a fresh look at all of these songs," Bennett said. "As a result, what you get is classical Rodgers and Hammerstein through the prism of a more modern sensibility."

For example, a song like "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" sung by a nun in "The Sound of Music," becomes the lament of a young boy about his wildly changeable girlfriend. Tenor songs are given to baritones, men's songs to women. Some solos become ensemble numbers, and arrangements are updated.

Bennett admits she was a little wary of the changes at first.

"I am a purist by nature. I don't like anybody mucking with anything," she said. "The amazing things is that they have managed to capture something about all of the original music that is so true to the original and, at the same time, provides an incredibly fresh perspective.

"It's like seeing them all dressed up again in a different way."

Evan Grosshans, Lawrence senior in theater and film, is one of five cast members in the show. This is his first musical revue, and he's enjoying the format.

"The most intense parts of musicals are the songs," he said. "We're doing the most intense parts of about seven or eight or nine or 10 Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals -- all in about 2 hours."

Though no distinguishable plot rises out of the series of songs and choreography, a theme emerges, Bennett said.

"What happens throughout the course of the review is a kind of exploration of themes of love and romance from a juvenile/adolescent kind of approach on through that 20-, 30-something search for the right person into kind of parenthood, and then ultimately there is a more mature perception of what love is," she said. "There are themes of pain and of loss and heartbreak, and the show ends on this kind of wistful and at the same time joyously hopeful tone of just around the corner, there's new romance."

Musical-going audiences will recognize most, if not all, of the numbers in the revue. The song list includes favorites like "Shall We Dance?" "Hello Young Lovers," "I Cain't Say No," "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," "This Nearly Was Mine," "Honeybun" and "Kansas City."

Musical direction is being handled by Michael D. Johnson, a graduate teaching assistant in Slavic languages and literature. Johnson also plays piano in the four-person ensemble providing instrumentation for the show. In addition to Grosshans, the cast consists of Julia Elise Hardin, Lawrence senior; Dylan Hilpman, Lawrence sophomore; Michelle Nikoomanesh, Overland Park junior; and Kelli Berry, Manhattan graduate student.

Staging the grand production in the Inge, an intimate black box theater, has been both challenging and wonderful, Bennett said.

"The singers can sing with so much subtlety," she said. "And when the music calls for an enormously large kind of sensibility, it's just dazzling in that tiny little space."

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