MTH’s Original “R&H: Unplugged” Offers Electrifying Variations on Musical Theatre Masters

The cast of “R&H: Unplugged.” (Photo by Cory Weaver.)

Among songwriters not named Irving Berlin, none has contributed more highlights to the 20th-Century American Songbook than Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, and Oscar Hammerstein II. With his two successive lyrical partners, Rodgers composed more than 900 songs, including the scores for 43 Broadway musicals. Tracks by Rodgers & Hart have been covered by hundreds of artists over the decades, from Frank Sinatra to Lady Gaga. Rodgers & Hammerstein’s work has earned 37 Tony Awards and 15 Oscars—numbers apt to increase as future stage and film versions emerge. Somewhere, an “R&H” song is playing; somewhere, an “R&H” show is being revived once more.

And then there is R&H: Unplugged, the original new production on Music Theater Heritage’s Main Stage, which aims not just to revive and celebrate the songs of Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein, but to reinvigorate them for a new audience.

Conceived and directed by MTH artistic director Tim Scott, R&H: Unplugged reorchestrates—and reimagines—a selection of 23 of Rodgers’ standards (roughly half written with Hart, the other with Hammerstein). As realized by an impressive cast of singers, dancers, and even one beatboxer—supported by a live (and lively) string quintet—the result is not just an evening of oldies-but-goodies, or a trip down memory lane, but something novel and exhilarating.

From the opening harmonies and solos (“This Can’t Be Love,” from The Boys from Syracuse), it’s clear we’re in the presence of four of the region’s most talented vocalists, each bringing a different personality and range to the ensemble. Lauren Braton’s voice blends power and beauty, such as in a remarkably charged performance of “My Funny Valentine.” Gabriela Delano delivers just as much strength, often with a comic edge, especially in “Johnny One Note.” Jon Daugharthy brings quiet charm to ballads such as “Where Or When.” And Douglass Walker smoothly hits all the high notes (and then the higher notes).

Yet what starts out as a pleasant-enough concert of classics slyly evolves into something more inventive. The all-string orchestrations (by violist Alyssa Bell) begin to wander into bolder genres, from blues to bluegrass. Vocal percussionist Luke “Skippy” Harbur provides an entire rhythm section with just his mouth and a mic. The bi-level playing space (designed by Scott with Jacob Boshears, and lit by Zoe M. Spangler) becomes a dramatic platform for a series of elegant dance sequences, exquisitely executed by Tristian Griffin and Ashlan Zay (choreography by Caroline Dahm).

Ashlan Zay and Tristian Griffin. (Photo by Cory Weaver.)

Archival audio clips of Rodgers reflecting on his partnerships, primarily with Hart, intersperse and occasionally introduce the musical offerings, creating a subtle narrative frame, but also adding tragic weight to the mostly romantic tunes. Hart, a gay man forced to remain closeted, struggled with anxiety and alcohol, and often disappeared in the face of songwriting deadlines. His relationship with Rodgers came to a head—and an end—when Hart took off for Mexico rather than work on a musical adaptation of the play Green Grow the Lilacs, which—once Rodgers turned instead to Hammerstein—would become Oklahoma! Fittingly, the first act ends with that show’s wordless “Dream Ballet.”

As MTH founder George Harter explained in a pre-show talk, Rodgers’ partnerships with Hart and Hammerstein formed the backbone of modern American musical theater. Hart’s clever verses and internal rhyme (“We’ll have Manhattan / The Bronx and Staten Island, too”) influenced generations of lyricists, while Hammerstein’s sparer but inspiring takes on dark subjects, combined with Rodgers’ soaring melodies, pioneered the book-musical template that is still largely followed by shows from Wicked to Book of Mormon, and even Hamilton.

Act II is all Hammerstein, with a heavy helping of Carousel, starting out with a soulful R&B rendition of “June is Busting Out All Over.” “Mr. Snow” gets the Nashville treatment, Walker channels Peabo Bryson for an up-tempo, show-stopping “If I Loved You,” and it all ends, as it should, with the send-off of all send-offs: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Yes, this is one of those shows where you will walk out (alone or not) humming the tunes. Rodgers gets most of the credit for that—as Harter claimed, he may not be America’s greatest composer, but he is our most proficient “melodist.” Yet even in a world where thousands of renditions of R&H songs already exist, R&H: Unplugged is worthy of its own original soundtrack recording. (I was disappointed I couldn’t already stream it on the drive home.)

Of course, Rodgers himself likely would have loathed the idea—he notoriously despised arrangements that departed from his originals. Asked about a 1952 bongo-laden Peggy Lee cover of his and Hart’s waltz “Lover,” he reportedly replied, “I don’t know why Peggy picked on me when she could have f—ed up ‘Silent Night.’” Imagine what he might have to say about a ballet with a beatboxed bass line.

But Rodgers, Hart, and Hammerstein are—as Harter also pointed out—now dead. Their songs survive. And thanks to admiring yet bold productions such as R&H: Unplugged, a new generation is giving them new life.

“R&H: Unplugged” runs through March 5 at Music Theater Heritage’s Main Stage (4th Floor) at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Blvd. For more information, call (816) 221-6987 or visit musictheaterheritage.com.

Victor Wishna

Victor Wishna is a Kansas City-based playwright, writer, author, editor, and commentator, among other things.

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