RALEIGH — Lauren Kennedy, Raleigh's own Broadway and West End star, brought her onstage talents home for 2005's inaugural season of Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy. Now she tests her directorial skills for the first time with the musical "Romance, Romance," revealing new aspects of her talent and giving the series a first-rate hit.
"Romance, Romance" is a charming, sophisticated 1988 Broadway musical by composer Keith Herrmann and lyricist Barry Harman. The piece is actually two separate musicals linked by the same performers and its exploration of romantic relationships.
The first, "The Little Comedy," is set in 1900 Vienna, where rich and jaded Alfred and Josephine, bored with their various love affairs, disguise themselves as lower class to change their luck. They meet and fall in love, each claiming to have found someone genuine, but eventually have to own up to their ruses.
The second, "Summer Share," is set in the present-day Hamptons, where two married couples are on vacation. When Sam (married to Barb) and Monica (married to Lenny) are alone late one night, they talk about their happy marriages, but secretly see in each other what is missing in their mates. They debate whether to consummate their desires while their mates speculate on the chances it will happen.
The writing is clever and the romantic situations are easy to identify with. The songs are apt and tuneful if rarely memorable. The music sounds the same after awhile, but the witty lyrics carry them along.
What elevates the evening are the warm and funny portrayals from Brian Myers Cooper (Alfred/Sam) and Stacey Harris (Josephine/Monica). Thursday's opening found them amazingly confident and comfortable, displaying a delight in performing that communicates directly to the audience.
The first act's old world insouciance is nicely balanced with the modern casualness of the second, showing off each performer's versatility. Their chemistry is real, no more so than in the flirting dance sequences in both acts. Both have strong voices that find all the nuances in the songs.
Joining them are Michael Jones and Tatiana Guy as a variety of characters in the first part and Lenny and Barb in the second. While they get less chance to show off, they provide several vivid moments, the best being the "old folks" vaudeville routine in part two.
McRae Hardy leads a splendid eight-piece orchestra, perky in the first part, laid back in the second. The lack of a pit in the black-box Kennedy Theatre often causes the louder parts to cover the vocals, even though the singers are miked.
Highest praise goes to Kennedy, whose musical stage experience colors every moment of this precisely professional show with every detail considered. She uses every inch of the stage, has a flair for striking stage pictures and keeps the pace tight.
Kennedy's understanding of what makes a musical tick gives this production a must-see status, firmly establishing Hot Summer Nights as a fully professional operation.
Correspondent Roy C. Dicks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.