Adapted from Washington Irving's 1809 history of New York, and featuring book and lyrics by playwright Maxwell Anderson, the show has aspirations to be both a light-hearted romantic confection and a biting satire about the abuse of political power. It's a strange duality that never quite achieves the proper balance; and although the piece is beautifully sung, featuring an estimable sextet of performers in principal roles, Knickerbocker Holiday proves to be a wearying trek into the realm of forgotten musical theater history.
A majority of the highlights in the concert come whenever Victor Garber, playing the new New Amsterdam governor, Peter Stuyvesant, takes center stage. Garber seems to be channeling Robert Benchley and Monty Woolly in his performance as the Dutchman who has come to rule in his own strong-armed way. Garber revels in the character's pomposity and political megalomania to grand effect, and traverses some of Weill and Anderson's most intricate numbers, as well as one of their most famous, "September Song," with a sure sense of style.
Garber's appropriately inflated performance is counterpointed nicely by appealing down-to-earth turns from Ben Davis and Kelli O'Hara, who play, respectively, Brom Broek and Tina Tienhoven, a young couple who are hoping to marry, and who find their plans are stalled by Stuyvesant's announcement that he will take Tina for his own wife. Davis uses his rich baritone to exquisite effect throughout, even as he captures both Brom's hotheadedness, which lands him in prison, and easygoing charm. O'Hara, who has the opportunity to display her beautifully trained operatic soprano frequently in the show, makes Tina both a dumb blonde and spunky ingénue, and it's a dichotomy that charms.
Also on hand are the always reliable Christopher Fitzgerald, who plays Brom's sadsack sidekick Tenpin; Bryce Pinkham as the show's guide, Washington Irving himself; and David Garrison, who gives a strong and subtly smarmy turn as Tina's corrupt politician of a father. In addition, musical theater comics Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Michael McCormick, Orville Mendoza, Brad Oscar, and Steve Rosen get laughs as the bumbling town council members whenever they're onstage. And the Collegiate Chorale, under the assured baton of conductor James Bagwell, does gorgeous work in the show's big choral numbers.
The excesses of the book are only made more palpable by the sheer volume of music that Weill provides: 28 numbers in just over two hours. It's often quite fascinating to hear how strains of melodies that might easily fit into one of his collaborations with Bertolt Brecht collide with sounds of popular American music, particularly jazz and big band. But it's ultimately a score, filled with dense erudite lyrics, that engages the mind more than the heart, or even, in the long run, the ear.