Your reaction to the City Center Encores! production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1932 musical,
Music in the Air will likely be in direct proportion whether you believe in the original Encores! mission of presenting important musical theater that might otherwise never be revived or if you’re looking for the next Chicago. Simply put, this is a period piece that barely belonged in its own time and certainly would find no commercial favor today.
Yet its lush and melodic score, and its exquisite historic (and hysterical) teetering between the old musical theater conventions of operetta and the new emerging forms of musical comedy, make for a special night of theater for those who care about the history of the Great White Way. And, better yet, this lavish and loving production, perfectly cast from top to bottom and sharply directed by Gary Griffin, provides all the evidence one needs to understand why the show was such a success in its day.
Music in the Air is a story about country people coming to the big city and almost getting corrupted. Of course, they rediscover their values (and their love) by the end of the play. The simple plot revolves around an innocent young schoolteacher (Ryan Silverman) and his virginal sweetheart (Sierra Boggess), who come to Munich from their small town in Germany with her musician father (Tom Alan Robbins), and fall in with the wicked people of the theater, including a hilariously self-absorbed diva (Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover, an equally self-absorbed playwright (Douglas Sills).
It doesn’t take a genius to see that great songs like “I’ve Told Every Little Star,” “I’m Alone,” and “The Song is You,” anchor the musical’s appeal over 75 years after its debut. But the show’s ultimate success rests on the clash between the show’s essentially modern book and its basically old-fashioned — but exquisitely beautiful — operetta score.
The piece also works as a sort of backstage musical, an audience favorite, and the absolutely inspired Sills and Chenoweth get every laugh imaginable from their scenes on stage. (The adaptation by David Ives apparently uses many of the gags from the original production.) Moreover, when Sills and Chenoweth sing the waltz “One More Dance”/”Night Flies By” in counterpoint, you are simply witnessing top-notch musical theater, no matter what year the calendar says!