Bayou City Concert Musicals continues its salute to celebrated shows of the 1940s with its Houston premiere of the 1943 hit One Touch of Venus, opening Thursday at Heinen Theatre.
In recent years, director Paul Hope has staged other ’40s gems that are far better known, even if seldom produced: Pal Joey, On the Town, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Finian’s Rainbow.
Now Hope and Bayou City Concert Musicals get around to One Touch of Venus, which gave Texas-born stage legend Mary Martin her first starring role. It also became the longest-running of the eight shows famed German-born composer Kurt Weill wrote for Broadway between 1936 and his death in 1950.
So how is it that Venus — a critically adored hit that ran 567 performances — has never been produced here until now?
“It’s strange,” Hope says. “ ‘Venus’ shows up on a lot of ‘best of’ lists. I first read the script in Ten Great Musicals of the American Theatre. All the other shows in that collection get done, but not this. I think that’s because the movie version (in 1948, starring Ava Gardner) cut most of the score; it wasn’t even a musical. And while there was a cast album, it was limited to the songs of the two leads, mostly ballads, leaving out supporting characters and comedy numbers, so the album gives no sense of how the show played.”
So what is “One Touch of Venus? It’s a sophisticated, romantic musical comedy with a screwball twist.
Diffident barber Rodney brings a 3,000-year-old statue of Venus to life when he places on her finger the engagement ring intended for his fiancee. Venus, who knows only love and nothing of 20th-century conventions, falls for Rodney and relentlessly pursues him. Worldly gallery owner Whitelaw Savory falls for Venus and pursues her. Also in the chase are Rodney’s overbearing fiancee, Gloria, and her even more overbearing mother. When Venus magically eliminates Gloria by transporting her to the North Pole, poor Rodney winds up suspected of the missing woman’s murder.
The playfully witty lyrics and book are by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, two of America’s top humorists and, at the time, regular contributors to the New Yorker, which gives an idea of the show’s flavor.
Yet One Touch of Venus is identified first and foremost as a Weill show. After winning renown for his 1933 Threepenny Opera, Weill fled Nazi Germany and settled in the U.S. He developed a more “American” sound, yet wrote in a wide variety of styles.
Knickerbocker Holiday was political satire; Lady in the Dark, a unique play with music; Street Scene, an all-out American opera; Love Life, one of the first concept musicals.
One Touch of Venus was Weill’s only outright musical comedy, yet the music still shows his distinctive approach to melody and harmony — as in the show’s hit, the haunting ballad Speak Low. Other standouts include the lilting Foolish Heart, the wryly insinuating I’m a Stranger Here Myself and the score’s most charming item, That’s Him, Venus intimate yet whimsical description of her love for Rodney.
Venus opened just six months after Oklahoma! revolutionized the musical. So it’s not surprising Hope finds it “a mix of pre- and post-Oklahoma!” elements. Some songs deal with the characters and situations, while some silly numbers are just for fun, as in the shows of the ’20s and ’30s.”
In one way, One Touch of Venus definitely emulates Oklahoma! Agnes DeMille, who choreographed both shows, included two of her trademark story ballets in One Touch of Venus. “40 Minutes for Lunch” depicts the hectic scene as Rodney takes Venus shopping at Rockefeller Center. Venus in Ozone Heights is Venus’ reverie of what her life will be if she marries Rodney and settles down in suburbia. Melissa Pritchett is choreographing for Bayou City Concert Musicals.
The title role calls for a particular blend of talent, humor and allure; Hope feels he’s found the right interpreter in Danica Dawn Johnson.
“I don’t know anyone else who could play it,” he says. “She has the voice, the acting chops and great charm. Venus’ arc is that she starts out rather carnal in her desire for Rodney, then she really falls in love and wants to marry him. But that brings the dilemma explored in the Act 2 ballet. If she settles down to monogamy, there can be no goddess of love!” What’s a girl to do?
In his five-year plan of ’40s classics, Hope saved One Touch of Venus for last, after the better-known shows.
“We programmed it now because we wanted to wait until we’d built enough of an audience, people who’d be interested in these shows, whatever we produce. And ticket sales have been pretty healthy, so I think there are people excited at finally having the chance to see this one.”
One Touch of Venus
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday Sept. 7-8; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9
Where: Heinen Theatre, 3517 Austin
Info: 713-465-6484 or bayoucityconcertmusicals.org