Classy songs without the silky sentiment

A new era began at the Mercury Theater Sunday afternoon, when the former rental venue in the heart of the Southport Avenue retail strip launched a year-round series of its own home-made productions.

Much of the inaugural season — "Barnum" is next and "The Color Purple" is just down the road — will doubtless challenge the spatial and other logical constraints of this intimate theater, which comes with neither space to fly scenery nor a pit to house an orchestra. Success with big musicals will demand great creativity. But those sorts of judgments will have to wait. The Mercury's management is starting cautiously, and one cannot fault them for that. The first production, "A Grand Night for Singing," a familiar but easy-on-the-ears revue of the great music of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II that originated in New York in the early 1990s, is the kind of intimate show that the Mercury has housed many times before, albeit produced by others.

In this instance, you get precisely what you would expect, maybe a little more. The designer Jason Epperson has decked out the Mercury stage with a certain retro elegance; it's filled with a six-piece orchestra under the direction of Eugene Dizon. The top-drawer cast, made up of Marya Grandy, Robert Hunt, Leah Morrow, Stephen Schellhardt and Heather Townsend, has an easy-going charm and just enough insouciance that we don't feel like we're on board a cruise ship in the Caribbean. Not that such a toasty evocation would be entirely a bad thing in frigid Chicago.

"Grand Night," first staged by Walter Bobbie, is no feast of innovation and it won't suddenly pull back any curtains or make you comprehend Rodgers and Hammerstein in a whole new way. But it does make an attempt to avoid silky sentiment (perhaps to a fault, given that Rodgers and Hammerstein were uniquely capable when it came to the guileless musical imparting of truths and life-lessons) and to shine a light on the lesser known shows and numbers in that formidable catalog, including material from "Allegro," "Flower Drum Song," "Me and Juliet" and "Cinderella," which is about to revived on Broadway later this year. Many of the arrangements (which often make beautiful use of solo cello) are mildly counter-intuitive, including a zippy "Some Enchanted Evening" and a merrily sultry "Kansas City," sung by women. This very experienced cast can handle of all that under the direction of Kevin Bellie, who keeps everything classy and avoids too much of that forced bonhomie that pockmarks so many of these revues. That said, there's room here for more dramatics, especially in Act 2, when the material allows for longer numbers.

When it comes to personality and humanity, Morrow is the standout, although Grandy has the kind of honesty that nicely anchors this show, as does Schellhardt, who is charming. "Grand Night" is a nice fit for this space; buses should soon by pulling up on Southport.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through March 10

Where: Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $25-$59 at 773-325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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