Kudos to J. Kent Barnhart and Quality Hill Playhouse for creating a show that transported a seen-it-all theater critic to a different time and place.
Attending a Quality Hill a show is a bit like stepping into a time machine, because you’re obliged to hear vintage songs – some of them so familiar you could hum them in your sleep – in a whole new way. In some cases it’s like hearing a tune for the first time.
That’s certainly the case with “My Romance,” the current production. This is a fine showcase of fine songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who worked together before Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II. Hart died before he was 40 and was as clever as Cole Porter in his ability to put together intricate rhyme schemes that always took the listener by surprise. And he was less sentimental than Oscar Hammerstein II, who teamed up with Rodgers to create a pantheon of famous musicals. But that’s a good thing.
None of the Rodgers-and-Hart Broadway shows achieved fame the equal of “South Pacific” or “Oklahoma!” but many of the songs became standards. And Barnhart and company serve up a cross-section of those tunes with style.
The voices on stage are exceptional by any measure. Lauren Braton and Jon Daugharthy, performers I’ve seen many times before, are among the best singing actors in Kansas City. And Stephanie Laws, whom I had not seen previously, is easily their equal. Barnhart, as usual, handles the piano parts and he’s again backed up by the fine rhythm section of drummer Ken Remmert and bassist Brian Wilson.
They kick off the show with an unexpected four-voice arrangement of “Isn’t It Romantic” performed almost as a lament. At times Barnhart opts for a cappella arrangements with four-part harmonies and the results are most impressive; Daugharthy’s lead vocals on “Blue Moon” are stunning.
Most of the first act consists of material drawn from fairly obscure Broadway shows – “The Garrick Gaieities,” A Connecticut Yankee,” “On Your Toes” and a handful of others. But the most powerful material seems reserved for Act II, where the ensemble performs songs mainly from “Pal Joey” and “Babes in Arms.”
Braton demonstrates a rich sense of humor with her rendition of “Zip,” a song gently mocking Gypsy Rose Lee, and handles the plaintive “Spring is Here” with heartfelt simplicity. Daugharthy, performing in the honorable tradition of saloon crooners, delivers an incendiary version of “The Lady is a Tramp” in an arrangement that allows for crisp solos from Remmert and Wilson. And Laws delivers a singular version of “Bewitched” and later impressively demonstrates her breath control with “Johnny One Note.”
You know you’ve seen a good show when the melodies from a couple of dozen sublime songs are competing for space in your head on the drive home.