Virtual theater is here.
Yes, it’s all because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shows few signs of receding anytime soon. Theater companies, obligated to protect the health of performers, crew and spectators, simply cannot stage live plays or musicals.
So the next logical step is theater one step removed.
On the plus side, theater lovers can watch a nice show from the comfort of the living room couch. On the down side, they are watching artists aching for a real audience perform on a flat screen. So nobody really gets the live theater experience. On the other hand, it suggests exciting possibilities moving forward.
MTH Theater at Crown Center, for years a haven for aficionados of the great American musicals, has tackled the problem head-on by producing “An Evening With Rodgers and Hammerstein,” a classy celebration of many of the timeless tunes from the R&H songbook. This video candy-box sampler includes material from “Oklahoma,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music,” as well as “State Fair” (the only movie for which R&H composed an original score) and the 1957 live TV production of “Cinderella.”
You can see it, but you won’t be in the same room with the singers. This is a high-end video production with great sound, beautiful lighting and classy performances, available for streaming on electronic devices through Sept. 20.
Directed and filmed by Tim Scott, MTH executive artistic director, the production showcases the talents of a core group of dynamic singers — Molly Hammer, Gabriella Delano, Krista Eyler, Patrick Lewallen and Robert McNichols — with special appearances by the talented Lauren Braton, Seth Golay and Allison Jones. You even get an approximation of the ballet from “Carousel,” choreographed by Caroline Dahm with dancers Colin Frederick and Ava Wischer
Most of the show was filmed on the main stage at MTH, although the performances by Braton, Golay and Jones were shot in the lobby of the old American Heartland Theatre — marking the first time in years, as far as I know, that music of any kind has been performed on the Heartland premises.
Scott, our emcee and historian for the evening, introduces the 72-minute program with a guitar-folk version of the achingly romantic “If I Loved You” from “Carousel.” Then, stepping into the role of host, Scott refreshes our appreciation of just how prolific Rodgers and Hammerstein were, and just how artistic their approach to song craft was. In short order we’re presented with a show-stopper — Robert McNichols delivering a rousing rendition of “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma” in his rich bass-baritone. Next up is an outstanding number from the same show — “Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” performed with nuance and understated humor by Patrick Llewallen, whose voice is crystal clear.
The always classy Molly Hammer delivers a precise, jazzy version of “The Gentleman is a Dope” from “Allegro,” after which we make our first visit to the Heartland lobby for Seth Golay’s passionate reading of “Younger Than Springtime,” which kicks off a set of tunes from “South Pacific,” followed by Lewallen with “Some Enchanted Evening,” Delano making her first appearance with a spirited take on “Honey Bun” and McNichols scoring with “This Nearly Was Mine.”
We then shift focus to the ballet, which is followed by a 1-minute intermission. Act II includes a lively ensemble version of “Kansas City” from “Oklahoma” with Eyler, McNichols, Delano and Lewallen. Over in the shadowy Heartland lobby Allison Jones gives us a super-animated take on “My Own Little Corner” from “Cinderella.” Back at the MTH main stage, Delano continues with “Impossible,” another tune from “Cinderella.”
Krista Eyler gives us an energetic version “Shall We Dance” from “The King and I.” Molly Hammer returns with “It Might As Well Be Spring” from “State Fair.”
Eyler gamely tackles the dubious “The Lonely Goatherd” from “The Sound of Music.” Then it’s back to the Heartland lobby for the ever-charismatic Lauren Braton and another show-stopper from that mega-hit musical — the stirring, operatic anthem “Climb Every Mountain.”
Scott returns with some background info on the creation of “The Sound of Music’ and brings out his acoustic guitar for a soft rendition of “Edelweiss” — although I confess it’s hard to get the opening credits of “Man in the High Castle” out of my head when I hear that tune.
Then it’s on to the grand finale, a gospel-flavored reading of another anthem — “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “Carousel.” It’s an impressive number, performed in four-part harmony by Eyler, Delano, McNichols and Lewallen.” A fitting close to a classy show.
The band, led by musical director Anthony T. Edwards at the piano and including drummer Tod Barnard, guitarist Cindy Eggers and bassist Jacob Roemer, performs flawlessly throughout. (Note: for the numbers filmed in the Heartland lobby, the production recruited pianist Michalis Koustoupides and guitarist Ryan Wurtz.) The musicians wore face masks at all times.
A word about Scott’s direction. He reports that most solo tunes were performed twice, ensemble numbers three times. The end result is consistent visual variety as he cuts between images caught by stationary cameras as well as a roving point of view that sometimes moves in for super closeups. He also captures candid images of the band, often seen in the background but sometimes captured in screen-filling close shots. The effect is enhanced significantly by the production and lighting design from Mark A. Exline. The sound recording by Jon Robertson is first-rate, capturing something much closer to a studio performance than you might expect from a a “live” show.
So, here we are. This is as close we can get to live theater at the moment.
By the way, Scott reports that MTH is planning a second virtual show, a revue of tunes from maritime musicals (“Titianic,” etc.) to be filmed at the Sea Life Aquarium at Crown Center.
“An Evening With Rodgers and Hammerstein” is available for streaming through September 20. Call 816-221-6987 or go to mthkc.com.