City Center Encores! presents a charming production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's often puzzling 1955 musical based on two John Steinbeck novels.
While the work is often puzzlingly experimental, at least by these writers' standards, director Mark Bruni has given the piece a colorful, detail-filled staging, which benefits from some terrific dances from choreographer Kelli Barclay, and the work of a bevy of talented performers, all of which lend the show considerable charm.
Based on John Steinbeck's Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, the sprawling show takes audiences into the heart of the seamier side of California's Monterey County, and a world inhabited by indolent men who've taken to squatting in an abandoned warehouse and the women who ply themselves as wares at the curiously named "Bear Flag Café." The characters are familiar archetypes in the novelist's work, but hardly the sort that theatergoers associate with the writers of Oklahoma! or Carousel.
At the center of the show are a vaguely idle marine biologist, Doc (Will Chase), who spends his days happily observing the animal life found at the bottom of a tide pool, and Suzy (Laura Osnes), a tough-talking, sweet-hearted tomboy, who's newly arrived in town.
Sparks fly as soon as the two meet, but it's only through some hefty machinations by Fauna (Leslie Uggams), the proprietress of the Bear Flag, and other townsfolk, particularly Mac (Tom Wopat), the sort of ring-leader at the warehouse, and his simple-minded buddy Hazel (Stephen Wallem), that the couple have their anticipated happy ending.
Along the way, Hammerstein's book takes substantial detours. For example, the fact that the warehouse belongs to a Mexican storeowner (Philip Hernandez) who could evict the guys at any time, go nowhere. Others like Fauna's proudly displaying the Christmas card she'll send to her clients simply provide the kind of atmospheric color associated with a novel, and not a carefully crafted book musical.
Similarly, Rodgers fills the score with some sumptuous melodies, particularly the absolute gem "All at Once You Love Her. But he also provides some unusually glib, almost quaint, pop tunes, such as "Will You Marry Me?," which is described as being a hit on a television show.
Chase gamely plays the distracted scientist with an appealing wry twinkle and croons the songs beautifully. Osnes, who works valiantly to reconcile the bifurcated sides of Suzy, uses her gossamer soprano to lovely effect, and Uggams, looking stunning in a procession of swank gowns from costume designer Toni-Leslie James, nails each of Fauna's numbers, imbuing them with both weary sagacity and sauciness.
Wopat and Wallem deliver the spoken and sung comedy material with flair, and Wallem's ability to communicate Hazel's mental slowness without ever commenting on it never fails to impress.