How do you solve a problem like Rodgers and Hammerstein?
If you're Bartlett Scher, the director of Lincoln Center's 2008 revival of "South Pacific," a touring version of which comes to Shea's Performing Arts Center next month, you approach it head-on.
If you're Michael Walline, the consistently inventive director and choreographer of MusicalFare Theatre's production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein mashup "A Grand Night for Singing," you come at it from the side.
Considering the material of each show, both approaches are exactly right. And for MusicalFare's production, which opened Wednesday night, Walline has struck the perfect balance between tongue-in-cheek cleverness and reverence for the original material.
"A Grand Night for Singing" is a revue the way revues are meant to be, driven totally by the songs and with no ham-handed attempt at a narrative. Nor is it merely a greatest-hits collection from the deep (if not exactly broad) Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook. There are plenty of glorious obscurities throughout the show, punctuated by the occasional crowd-pleaser like "Maria," "It Might As Well be Spring," "Shall We Dance?" and "Some Enchanted Evening."
Upon first seeing Chris Schenk's lush set, full of trees and greenery and against a projected backdrop of an oddly oblong moon, theatergoers might expect a saccharine nostalgia-fest.
But Walline, director of the Alt Theatre's "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and creator of productions like "Familiar Strangers" and "Zooma Zooma," is too smart for that. With the help of a largely gifted and engaging cast, he has produced a sort of love letter to two seminal figures of musical theater. The show is as corny as Kansas in August when it needs to be, but nearly always tempered with modern whimsy.
That's especially true in what for me was the hands-down highlight of the show, a hilariously choreographed performance of "Shall We Dance" from "The King and I" featuring John Kaczorowski and Maria Graham. Here, Walline dispenses with the grandiose dance of Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr and replaces it with a kind of manic "Night at the Roxbury" sensibility. Kaczorowski tries to woo Graham with a litany of cliched dance moves -- including, oh yes, going fishing and the worm -- which at length become too ridiculous for her or the audience to resist.
Excellent comic performances also come from Charmagne Chi, who brought tears of laughter to theatergoers' eyes in her recent appearance in "Avenue Q." Her rendition, with Graham, of "Stepsisters' Lament," along with "Kansas City" and many others, was similarly sidesplitting. Katy Miner is consistently lovely in her measured delivery of a range of ballads, especially "Something Wonderful."
Somewhat less compelling vocally -- though highly amusing in his risque performance of "Honey Bun" -- is Tom Owen, whose vibrato on "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" could shake your fillings loose. Graham has no shortage of charm but also no shortage of volume, a trait unassisted by the theater's sometimes harsh sound system.
Musical director and pianist Theresa Quinn, whose past work on the MusicalFare stage and elsewhere has sometimes tended to be unsure, hits all the right notes here. Lighting by Chris Cavanagh and costumes by Kari Drozd fill out the picture beautifully.
All told, though, Walline's production of a "Grand Night for Singing," full of whimsical choreography and plenty of sly humor, absolutely lives up to its title.
"A Grand Night for Singing"
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through May 20
WHERE: MusicalFare Theatre, 4380 Main St., Amherst
INFO: 839-8540, www.musicalfare.com