When Laura Osnes first burst onto the scene as Sandy in Grease (a role she won on a televised reality show), savvy audience members knew they were witnessing a star in the making. Over the last decade, Osnes has grown to become one of the theater industry's go-to ingenues, working extensively in the Rodgers & Hammerstein canon and playing roles that are so well-known you don't even have to name the show. She's been Cinderella and Nellie Forbush, Maria von Trapp and Julie Jordan, even Suzy (you know, from Pipe Dream). When Laura Osnes and Rodgers & Hammerstein are on the same bill, you know you're in great hands.
This is very true in her intimate new Café Carlyle program Cockeyed Optimists, conceived and performed alongside veteran musical director Ted Sperling. An 80-minute collection of the great Rodgers & Hammerstein love songs and scenes, the show is not only enchanting, but surprisingly educational, too. And after a fluffy opening medley that includes "My Favorite Things," "Impossible," and "I Whistle a Happy Tune," Osnes and Sperling delve unexpectedly into the more serious depths of the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalogue.
Case in point: Osnes's partially rewritten version of "I Enjoy Being a Girl" from Flower Drum Song. As she sings the original lyrics, we can tell she finds them hopelessly dated, punctuating "I'm strictly a female female / and my future I hope will be / in the home of a brave and free male / who'll enjoy being a guy having a girl like me" with sharp glances and confused facial experiences. She skillfully distances herself from a song about a woman wanting to be a man's object and soon launches into her own brave, defiant lyrics: "I'm strictly a female female / and I'll do what it takes to be / in the home of my dreams and prevail / and enjoy having a job / being a girl / like me!"
After a graceful rendition of "Hello, Young Lovers," Osnes is joined by Ryan Silverman for a series of duets: among them, a thoroughly charming "Surrey With the Fringe on Top" along with deeply romantic takes on Carousel's famous "bench scene" and South Pacific's "Twin Soliloquies."
Osnes allows her special guest to perform what amounts to the evening's 11 o'clock number, a beautifully dramatic version of "Soliloquy," complete with extra lyrics that had been cut before the original production but were included on the musical's original LP. Sperling accentuates each number with historical context; we leave the Carlyle knowing more about these songs than we previously have.
A pretty glorious double-whammy concludes the concert. As part of a South Pacific medley, Silverman launches into a blissful "Some Enchanted Evening." Osnes follows that up with an ecstatic "A Wonderful Guy," performed with the same boundless jubilation that filled the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 2009 and 2010 when she starred in South Pacific.
But before we walk out into the night air, we're given one more treat: "Edelweiss," performed by the trio without amplification. It's a quiet, tender end to a warm evening of classic songs, expertly performed.
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