It's not difficult to see the appeal John Steinbeck's 1945 novel Cannery Row and 1954 sequel, Sweet Thursday, had for the sometimes folksy Oscar Hammerstein II when he was looking around for potential musical-comedy-izing material.
Set in Monterey, Calif.'s defunct canning section after World War II and featuring any number of boisterous characters, the storyline must have looked promising to him as an one about which he and prolific partner Richard Rodgers could write the sort of romantic and high-spirited songs that had made them exalted household names for over a decade.
Hammerstein had the song-inspiration part right, as evidenced in the Encores! series revival of their resulting 1955 Pipe Dream entry. But he miscalculated on what he would be able to do with the libretto material. Indeed, the more he ventured into the tale of marine scientist Doc (Will Chase) and his off-again-on-again romance with young drifter Suzy (Laura Osnes )-- who stops in town long enough to be taken up by bordello madam Fauna (Leslie Uggams) and amusing layabout denizens Mac (Tom Wopat) and Hazel (Stephen Wallem) -- the more he loses his grasp on any kind of dramatic tension.
The result explains why the tuner, though it run a year and a half, is generally consigned to the bottom end of the Rodgers & Hammerstein nine-Broadway-musicals ranking. Maybe Hammerstein's problem was that he didn't delineate either Doc or Suzy enough to focus interest on their hate-love finally becoming a love-no-hate relationship.
Because he doesn't, the time he takes to follow them -- while their chums Fauna, Mac and Hazel, along with their enthusiastic cohorts work to unite them -- stretches way too far out. Those plots -- including a Snow-White-and-Seven-Dwarfs masquerade ball that grows tedious quicker than you can say "Mirror, mirror on the wall" -- are what add up to no sustaining single plot.
Nevertheless and pretty much for that reason, the Encores! presentation represents exactly what the series should -- at least in part -- be doing: offering musical comedy lovers a look at past properties they're unlikely to see elsewhere. The revelation here for those who aren't already aware how inventive much of the Pipe Dream score can be are the ditties, many right up there with the best Hammerstein-Rodgers songs.
The ballad "All at Once You Love Her" is a doozy, although today's anti-smoking advocates might object to the opening lyric "You start to light her cigarette." The jaunty "Sweet Thursday" and Doc's self-analysis, "The Man I Used to Be" are only a few of the irresistible items given marvelous treatment by Rob Berman, leading a 30-person -- count 'em, 30 -- orchestra.
And adroit conductor Mark Bruni has tapped a mighty fine group of players to reprise the tunes. Laura Osnes delivers a haunting version of "Everybody's Got a Home But Me," which is intended entirely to set out who she is and almost achieves that goal. (Osnes must be valued by the R&H gang, since she'll be Maria in the concert-version Sound of Music coming next month at Carnegie Hall.") She and Uggams are lovely in "Suzy is a Good Thing," despite its unfortunate closing line.
Uggams brings her brand of silvery, brassy verve to "Sweet Thursday" and a stunningly muted "All at Once You Love Her" reprise. Moreover, Wopat and Wallem supply zing to many of the other impressive numbers, several of them enhanced by Kelli Barclay's enthusiastic, even when not particularly inventive, choreography.
Getting back to Hammerstein, it has to be said that perhaps more than other beloved R&H classics, this one exposes -- by dint of its weaknesses -- the Hammerstein formula. He often inserted the same sort of songs at the same sorts of turns in the action. For example, the second-act blow-out "The Party That We're Going to Have Tonight" is the show's "This Was a Real Nice Clambake." Later in the act, "The Next Time It Happens" registers as an "If I Loved You" reprise.
Of course, when songs so ebullient and/or passionate are this good, who's going to complain? Although a number of the Encores! dust-offs have moved to Broadway, this one certainly won't. Never mind, since it has enough going for it right where it is. Of course, were it to move to Broadway in the next few weeks, you can bet that the score -- if being heard for the first time and given the current competition -- would cop the Tony hands down.