Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to discover a “brand new” Rodgers & Hammerstein musical happen about once in lifetime, which is why those who got to discover the almost-never-produced Pipe Dream this past Sunday, the first offering in the final season of Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series, can count themselves among the luckiest people in the world.

There’s probably not a Broadway buff among us who hasn’t seen umpteen productions of the five R&H biggies: Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King And I, and The Sound Of Music; many may also have caught the minor hit Flower Drum Song or the screen-to-stage Cinderella and State Fair; and a few might even have attended a rare revival or concert reading of Me And Juliet or Allegro, but virtually no one has seen Pipe Dream since its 245 performances on Broadway in 1955 (aside from a brief 2012 New York City Center Encores! run and so few others you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand).

Pipe Dream isn’t even licensed for production, either professional or amateur, which makes Reiner Reading Series’ snagging the rights-for-a-day seem well-nigh miraculous, a pipe dream come true for series producers Michael Betts and Gabriel Kalomas.

The main reason this particular Rodgers And Hammerstein show will likely never see a major regional staging (even assuming the R&H organization makes it available) is evident from a brief synopsis of Hammerstein’s book, adapted from John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row sequel Sweet Thursday.

Colorful Steinbeck’s cast of characters may be, but compelling their story lines are not, at least not when compared to those that helped make the great R&H shows great.

Monterey Bay Marine biologist Doc (Craig McEldowney at his offbeat leading-man best) meets vagrant gal Suzy (Kelley Dorney, feisty and fabulous), who then gets taken in by diner owner Fauna (Mary Gordon Murray, in sassy earth mother mode), whose Bear Flag Café turns bordello by night, a fact only vaguely alluded to in Hammerstein’s Eisenhower-era book.

Meanwhile, assorted Cannery Row denizens join forces to a) buy Doc a pricey microscope; b) secure him permanent ownership of the storage shed they won’t be calling home for much longer if the new owner has his druthers); and c) do some Doc-and-Suzy matchmaking along the way.

So what makes this otherwise featherweight show worth seeing, you may ask?

It’s the songs. The glorious Rodgers-&-Hammerstein songs, mostly unheard gems that once again prove Richard Rodgers the king of the hummable tune and Oscar Hammerstein the king of the subtly eloquent lyric, songs like “Sweet Thursday,” “All At Once You Love Her,” “The Happiest House On The Block,” and “The Next Time It Happens,” songs that cry out for listen after listen after listen.

Masterfully directed by Lewis Wilkenfeld, this Reiner Reading’s Pipe Dream felt almost as fully staged as if it had featured detailed sets and multiple costume changes, its scripts-in-hand rendered virtually invisible with just about everyone being virtually off-book.

All-around splendid performances seemed so fully developed, few would ever guess that Pipe Dream got rehearsed and performed in just four days, twenty-three hours in all.

McEldowney, Dorney, and Murray shone particularly bright, bringing their characters to multi-faceted life while singing quite gorgeously along the way.

Gabriel Kalomas as Doc’s salt-of-the-earth best chum Mac and Adam Trent as the improbably named, delightfully dim Hazel delivered a couple of particularly delectable character turns.

Doc’s ever-supportive entourage (Tom Shelton as Jim, Richard Bulda as George, Michael Dotson as Ray, Andrew Metzger as Whitey, and Hanz Enyeart as Eddie) provided topnotch support as did Benjamin Perez as Joe, the shop owner who must be hoodwinked so that Cannery Row residents can keep on residing, with Metzger doing double duty as Dr. Ormandy and Enyeart as Sonny Boy.

Maggie Darago was terrific too, both as society dame Millicent and as Mildred, night-worker at the Bear Flag alongside Sara Freedland’s Agnes and Nikki Spies’ Marjorie, each a treat.

With musical director Ryan O’Connell not only eliciting ear-pleasing solos and harmonies but also conducting an ace-musicians-only orchestra and choreographer Michelle Elkin finding ingenious ways to integrate dance moves along the way (kudos to a balletic Enyeart for his uncredited bit as “Dream Doc”), this eighth-and-final Reiner Reading Series opener, stage managed by Heidi Westrom, delivered the goods … and then some.

Sometimes dreams, even Pipe Dreams, really do come true.

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Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
September 17, 2017

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