Rodgers and Hammerstein: Pipe Dream


New York City Center, NY, 15 April 2012

3 stars

Pipe DreamPipe Dream, which opened at the Shubert Theatre in the winter of 1955, is the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that preceded the TV spectacular, Cinderella, and Broadway's Flower Drum Song (1957). Based on the John Steinbeck story Sweet Thursday, the material, with its drifters, brothel denizens, and other homeless types, was not a fortuitous choice to be made into a musical – certainly not by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It ran only 246 performances, despite the presence of Helen Traubel as the madam, trying to enter musicals in the way that Ezio Pinza did in South Pacific.

If the choice of this particular novel was a bad idea, they might have chosen Tortilla Flat, which had a more gripping plot, and which had been made into a film in the 1940s. But critics complained that the movie was too much like a watered-down version of Steinbeck's masterwork, The Grapes of Wrath.

In any event, the Encores! production, at the newly, dazzlingly-refurbished City Center (it was originally a Masonic Hall) was very well cast, and the songs proved irresistible—and why not, with Rodgers and Hammerstein behind them, and with brilliant orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett. The record, devoid of the plot, was always pleasant to listen to. On the other hand, the Hammerstein dialogue proved to be quite dull and uninteresting.

However, the songs truly carry the show.  And there are a lot of them, constantly interrupting the plot in an well-advised way. The overture, which is certainly not a heart-throbbing as those for South Pacific or The King and I, does plant in your brain the incredible felicity of Richard Rogers in dealing with any type of song.

The very first number, "All Kinds of People", originally sung by Bill Johnson, as Doc, who took several roles in London versions of, for example, Annie Get Your Gun, was a fabulous baritone,Will Chase.  What you get in Rodgers' treatment of the melody is an early warning that rapture is ahead, something that Rodgers supplied in abundance in most of his shows. Hammerstein's lyrics may not seem as distinguished, but the line that goes "And they fly through the sky on wings" is proof of the magical powers of Rodgers. (Hammerstein was uniquely attracted to birds--remember "Like a lark that is learning to pray" from The Sound of Music.)

The next song is "The Tide Pool", a spirited number that is vulgarly tied to the plot, but the song after that is "Everybody's Got a Home but Me" in which again Rodgers supplies a glorious tune for the drifter, Suzy. Even the minor, throw-away numbers, like "The Man I Used to Be" or "Sweet Thursday" have an radiant bounce to them.. But then Rodgers gives us a duet for Suzy and the madam, Fauna, that takes your breath away. It is quite unlike any number from a earlier Rodgers and Hammerstein show, and it is incredibly moving. The "Mexican" number, first sung in Spanish, is the very effective close of the first act ("All at Once You Love Her").

The second-act songs are, as a whole, not as fine as those in Act I, but there are surprises. A song supposedly from "Your Hit Parade" which is sung by the lovers, "Will You Marry Me?", is unexpectedly poignant. In this number, Doc explains he will not marry Suzy, for various reasons. But eventually they do discover their mutual love, and the song in which they discover this is "The Next Time it Happens", in which rapture positively explodes.  One other second-act number, with Fauna and the chorus, "How Long?" also positively bursts with enthusiasm, in the style of "June is Bustin' Out All Over", from Carousel.

What struck me about this score was that it includes all the typical Rodgers contrivances – the constantly repeated notes, the boisterous chorus numbers ("A Lopsided Bus") – but that the better songs were very moving, despite the awkwardness of the plot. The cast of the Encores! revival was truly excellent. Will Chase (Doc) is a terrific baritone, and his acting was excellently handled.

Laura Osnes (Suzy), who was a replacement Nellie in the recent revival of South Pacific at Lincoln Center, was quite fine. But the biggest surprise was Leslie Uggams, who made a big splash in Hallelujah, Baby! in the the 1960s (Betty Comden-Adolph Green-Jule Styne) but who has not been offered really substantial parts since. As Fauna, she belted her numers so you could understand them, unlike the too-operatic Helen Traubel, originally. (Ah, but I saw Ms. Uggams in a revival of Irivng Berlin's Call Me Madam several years ago in which she was positively glittering.)

Minor parts were well-acted and sung by Tom Wopat and Stephen Wallem, and I especially liked the dancing double in "The Man I Used to Be" (Charlie Sutton).  The set, conceived by John Lee Beatty, was very modest, but effective, representing mostly signs and corrugated metal that are found in that section of California. The choreography by Kelli Barclay was quite inventive, and the conductor, Ron Berman, successfully brought out the rapture of Rodgers, with what seemed an equivalent of the original orchestra – with no less than nine violins!

By Richard Traubner

Photo credits: AP Photo/Helene Davis Public Relations, Ari Mintz.