There we were, nestled in the ornate auditorium of the Goodspeed Opera House, as talented actors sang catchy and melodious tunes on stage.
It had been a while.
For 21 months, the East Haddam Theater was closed to the public due to COVID. If my Wednesday visit was any indication, fans are delighted to be back.
An example: during intermission, a woman approached a Goodspeed employee and told him, with barely contained glee, that she liked the show; it made her happy at a time when there is not much to say. This is perhaps the best review a production can get.
The show is a revue featuring music from the legendary team at Rodgers & Hammerstein, titled “A Grand Night for Singing: A Celebration of Rodgers & Hammerstein”. (It replaced Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” originally planned for Goodspeed, which was too large a production to stage at this point in the pandemic.)
“A Grand Night” is definitely not a stilted regurgitation of R&H numbers – far from it. It makes the familiar tunes fresh.
The way they perform the songs sometimes comes close to tradition (the charming “Some Enchanted Evening”, for example) but most often reinvents them in a slightly new way, without losing the melody that made them so memorable at the start. (“Shall We Dance” get a jazzy take).
The staging is also clever. This is no surprise, given that the production is directed by Rob Ruggiero, whose work at Goodspeed has always been inspired.
One of my favorites: Actresses Mamie Parris and Diane Phelan sing “Stepsisters’ Lament” from “Cinderella,” with lyrics to “Why would a man want a girl like her?” A frail and fluffy beauty? Why can’t a man ever prefer a tough girl like me? They look sadly at their cell phones, and you can imagine their words being triggered by pictures they see on social media or dating sites.
Parris and Phelan are part of a five-person cast that works and harmonizes beautifully together. The rich and full voice of Jasmine Forsberg is put to good use on the sassy “It’s Me”. Jesse Nager is the secret weapon in terms of timing and sneaky comedic expressions, like in his rendition of “I Cain’t Say No”. He is also a gifted singer, who reached a beautifully moving climax on “If I Loved You”.
Mauricio Martinez has the allure and tips of an opera singer. His Spanish version of “Something Wonderful” is, well, wonderful.
In an interview with The Day during the rehearsal process, Ruggiero said he wanted the production to reflect the times we live in, which means it features a diverse cast and a modern take on relationship material. . He said, “You know, it’s a celebration of the R&H canon, but it’s really a celebration of love and life, using the R&H canon to explore relationship and connection. … I said right away that it couldn’t be just male-female in 2021. So we play with all this fluidity. We also bend genres, so songs that are traditionally female are male and vice versa.
As well as the men and women singing romantic numbers to each other, the same goes for same-sex couples on occasion (including a sweet two-dad version of “When the Kids Sleep”).
Changing the gender of the person performing a song makes a different spin, for example, to “Maria” from “The Sound of Music”, which now comes from the perspective of a loving young man.
Costumes and decorations
The costumes of “A Grand Night” are sober: black outfits for the first act, addition of blue tops for the second. The accessories offer some whimsy – oversized cowboy hats for “Oh, what a beautiful morning” and a shiny jacket and aprons for “Honey Bun”. “Honey Bun,” by the way, is the funniest number of the night, with all five of the cast dancing (choreography by Lainie Sakakura) and giving a metaphorical nod to the ridiculous and sexist lyrics (“Ma doll is as delicate as a sparrow / Her figure is something to applaud / Where she is narrow she is as narrow as an arrow / And she is wide where a wide should be wide ”).
Although there is no traditional decor, the back wall of the stage houses a large full moon, the patterns of which change at various times of the night.
I guess you could call the instruments part of the landscape. The six-piece orchestra is on stage, and the shiny grand piano and enormous harp seem to be magnificent pieces of the ensemble.
The theatrical experience during COVID
Before you even see “A Grand Night”, you must adhere to various COVID protocols. Goodspeed asks you to come to the Opera at least half an hour before the show time, in case you have to queue while waiting for theater workers to check your vaccination record. (People who are not vaccinated must get a pre-approved exception from Goodspeed and then must provide negative COVID test results.)
The night I attended, I was lucky: no one was in front of me, and I went straight to the outside table, handed them my card and entered the theater.
Once you walk inside you remain masked. The only time spectators are allowed to remove their masks is when drinking in the bar or outside. Everyone I have seen followed these rules impeccably.
Goodspeed covers all the basics to remind you ahead of time: sending emails and even calling with a recording from Goodspeed Art Director Donna Lynn Hilton going over the main points of the protocol.
Seats are intentionally left empty so that different groups of spectators in the same aisle are separated by a vacant seat. It feels like the experience is a little less common than when audience members are crowded, laughing, and clapping with the power of a packed house – but only lightly.
And I’ll say this: When the performers sing directly to the audience about, say, being face to face, it’s like an acknowledgment of the happiness everyone feels to be back inside the theater.