Hungarian transplant Sigmund Romberg composed some of Broadway's most luminous melodies during its '20s golden age. His lush, operatic songs are in fine hands with Bayou City Concert Musicals' intimate showcase One Kiss: The Music of Sigmund Romberg, the fifth such cabaret production at Ensemble Theatre's Performance Centre.
The lively shows, produced by BCCM's artistic director/founder Paul Hope, an Alley Theatre vet and real Broadway baby whose showbiz knowledge runs deep and true, have an intoxicating taste of Manhattan nightlife. Large round tables, elegantly dressed, are clustered around the small stage in the less-than-intimate space of the Performance Centre, but everybody's pushed close to the stage so we get personal with the performers. Musical director Heather Tipsword sits to the side at her piano. While there's no fancy supper-club menu, dishes of mixed nuts do stand in and there's a bar that pours premium adult beverages, so we're never too far from swank. The tinkling of ice adds to the atmosphere. It's laid-back and informal, as if we're being entertained at home.
Hope, standing at a lectern, is our personable emcee for the musical journey, telling tales of old Broadway and leading us joyously through the life and work of the composer to be honored. Tonight it's Sigmund Romberg, dean of American operetta, whose peerless, timeless melodies fit effortlessly into the Great American Songbook. His songs have become classics of the genre and spring evergreen with each new generation of singers. Streisand and Bobby Darrin have had great success with Romberg.
After years as apprentice house composer for the giant theater conglomerate the Schubert Brothers, supplying throw-away tunes for their Flo Ziegfeld-like extravaganzas, Romberg came into his own with scores for Maytime (1917), Student Prince (1924), Desert Song (1926) and New Moon (1928). Each was a top hit of its season on Broadway, with songs "Will You Remember," "Deep in My Heart" "One Alone" and "Romance" as pre-eminent chart toppers (or leading sheet music sales, as popularity was calculated back then). His romantic musical style waned with the emergence of a more "American" sound by Gershwin and Rodgers, but Romberg had a startling resurgence in the '30s when MGM filmed the old operettas and gave them new life with stars Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. His work never faded, and he had a final success on the Great White Way with a more upbeat piece of Americana, Up in Central Park (1945), and posthumous acclaim for The Girl in Pink Tights (1954).
You can't really appreciate Romberg without Rombergian singers willing to give these sumptuous melodies their all. You can't sing Romberg without going full out. Hope always showcases the best show singers in town for his cabaret shows, and One Kiss is no exception, plying us with some Houston favorites. I'm still humming the haunting "Lost in Loveliness" from Tights, sung by Susan Shofner and Tye Blue.
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Everybody gets to shine in these shows. Among the highlights: Rob Fleebe's ardent "Serenade" ("Overhead the Moon Is Beaming") from Student Prince; John Gremillion wrapping his baritone around the stirring "Riff Song" from Desert Song; Susan Shofner portraying a singing figurehead in the comic "Girl on the Prow" from New Moon; the statuesque Danica Dawn Johnston's sultry rendition of "Stout-Hearted Men," also from New Moon; and a showsopping, jazzed "Lover Come Back to Me" from Beth Lazarou, accompanied by the original orchestral track that Streisand used. Other featured notable artists are Janet Berzins, Amanda Passanante, Alex Stutler and Doug Threeton.
The music of Sigmund Romberg is singular, infectious, emotionally direct, and somewhat over the top. But all of it is deeply heartfelt and goes right to the meat of romance. It flies high. Under BCCM, Romberg soars anew.
The tunes of Sigmund Romberg, interpreted by some of Houston's best performers, play Mondays, May 14 and 21, at 7:30 p.m. at Ensemble Theatre's Performance Centre, 3535 Main. Purchase tickets online at www.bayoucityconcertmusicals.org or call 713-465-6484. $25.