By Ron Fassler
In the course of the past seven days— completely random, too— I happened to see Mack & Mabel, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and No Strings, three shows not often performed and all composed by three distinguished gentlemen from what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of American Musicals (Jerry Herman, Meredith Willson and Richard Rodgers). I’m happy to report that it made for a very enjoyable, nostalgia-driven week, with all shows making good arguments for why they should be done more. No Strings— the only Broadway musical to which Rodgers composed both music and lyrics— is being revived by the new J2 Spotlight Musical Theatre Company, in their second production of a three-show season under the direction of co-founders Jim Jimirro and Robert W. Schneider. Their mission to bring back musicals that demand a second look is both noble and exciting, and having already seen their first offering, 1973’s Seesaw (Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields) this company is officially two-for-two with No Strings.
The original show is a bit of curio, most notable as Rodgers’ one-time experiment composing a Broadway musical on his own (“it was lonely,” is how he described it). And despite its lesser known status, No Strings won him a Tony Award for Best Composer in the 1962-63 season— over the much-heralded Frank Loesser-Abe Burrows smash How To Succeed (now considered a classic). Specifically written for a rising star of her day, Diahann Carroll, Rodgers personally sought her out before getting started to be sure she would be interested. As an African American woman who first appeared on Broadway in Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s House of Flowers (1954), Carroll wasn’t getting any offers to star in a Broadway musical eight years later. The idea of an interracial romance that Rodgers pitched intrigued her, so he and Samuel Taylor— a playwright of some distinction in the 1950s— went to work on a book. Together they fashioned a somewhat thin story about David Jordan, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist with a severe case of writer’s block, who is bumming around Europe (Paris, most specifically) while his funds near depletion. It might have been more interesting if they had him toiling so near the bottom that perhaps he would have contemplated becoming a gigolo, but Taylor and Rodgers stayed away from that sort of darkness and merely had him mooching off friends. When David meets an American high-fashion model for Vogue, Barbara Woodruff, he is smitten… but she is sort of “kept” by a wealthier man (though his life goes almost completely unexplored). It’s all very light, very quaint, and side-steps most serious things (including the racial issues) until the very last scene, when David and Barbara realize that returning to America as a couple would be nothing like the freedom they enjoy in France. It’s to the writers’ credit that they even cursorily dealt with the question, and it still manages to be touching (even after all these years), sensitively portraying these characters’ love for one another.
No Strings is a pun, as Rodgers writes of an affair that seemingly has none, while arranging the score so that no strings were designed for the orchestra. On its original cast recording, the show opens to its most recognizable tune, “The Sweetest Sounds,” where we hear a flute introduce her and a clarinet introduce him (sadly there was no clarinetist for this production). The simplicity is beautiful, and their separate worlds invoke a bit of the “Twin Soliloquies” of South Pacific. And though that romance appeared doomed throughout that show, it managed to end with Nellie and Emile holding hands under a table. Not so for David and Barbara, who end parting to the same tune that introduced them. It’s bittersweet, and in Deidre Goodwin’s unforced and graceful direction, the two leads (Cameron Bond and Keyonna Knight) make for a most appealing couple.
The small combo on stage throughout was led by Grant Strom on piano, Dan Monte on percussion, and Schuyler Thornton on flute, sounding very fine indeed. Goodwin also doubled as choreographer, and her command of the small stage made for some lovely stage pictures of the models/dancers who served as a fine way to transition scenes and bring the world of French Vogue to life. Also of note is Sandy York, giving a charming performance as Mollie Plummer, the Vogue editor. She managed to find the age and world-weariness of the character without ever falling into cliché. The rest of the ensemble features Jordan Bollwerk, Patrick Connaghan, Tim Ewing, Annabelle Fox, Luke Hamilton, Heather Klobukowski, Ashley Lee, Logan Mortier, Anne Otto, Emilee Theno, and Anne Wechsler.
It was the noted radio host Jonathan Schwartz who once pointed out that after forty years of writing with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, the first words ever heard as lyrics written by Richard Rodgers himself were “The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear are still inside my head.” Take that in for a moment: It’s rather extraordinary. He was expressing a belief that there was still more to come; similar to Molly Brown’s “I ain’t down yet,” or even Mack Sennett’s trumpeting that “Movies were movies when I ran the show.”
Photos: Clay Anderson
Through March 9th at Theatre Row — 410 W 42nd Street, NYC
Next up, J2 Spotlight’s third and last production: Ed Kleban’s A Class Act, March 12-22nd.