One Touch of Venus
Blair, Shelby, Trares, Rice; Nype, Gaynes, Nye; studio orchestra, Smart. VAI 4568, 79 mins.,
One Touch of Venus has always been one of Kurt Weill's more elusive American works. Its glorious score is well known to musical-theater buffs, but the show, despite its hit status, is rarely revived. This 1955 TV version based on the Dallas State Fair production is a true find. Though trimmed down to a very spare seventy-nine minutes, it contains most of the numbers in the score — even the two ballets, albeit in truncated form.
Ogden Nash, America's great master of light comic verse, wrote the highly sophisticated lyrics, which marry beautifully with Weill's irresistible music. It's the book, by Nash and S. J. Perelman, here adapted for television by George Schaefer and John Gerstad, that is a bit of a problem. Although it has its fair share of laughs, it offers a cast of characters that is neither particularly smart nor sympathetic. Loosely inspired by F. Anstey's 1898 comic novel The Tinted Venus, the book focuses on what should be a supporting character — an ultra-nerdy barber — and makes him the object of the affection of Venus, who has descended to earth in the form of an ancient statue that comes to life. Vying for Venus's interest is a rather slimy millionaire art collector. On Broadway in 1943, Venus was created — indelibly, by all accounts — by Mary Martin; former Hollywood leading man John Boles was the millionaire, and heartthrob tenor crooner Kenny Baker played the barber.
Janet Blair is the Venus for this production, and though she is perhaps just a bit long in the tooth for the part, she is gorgeous and graceful and has a lovely singing voice that rises to a ripe, legit sound for such numbers as "Foolish Heart" and "Speak Low." Her adoration for Russell Nype as Rodney the barber is difficult to grasp; Nype's resemblance to Arnold Stang renders him charmless, as do his gawky portrayal and pinched singing voice. As the millionaire Whitelaw Savory, George Gaynes lacks seductiveness. He does not take the camera well, and his stiff baritone sounds uncomfortably cartoonish. The supporting cast features some very stagewise scene-stealers, including Laurel Shelby as Savory's secretary Molly, Adnia Rice as the mother of Rodney's irritable fiancée, and Louis Nye as a frustrated Freudian psychiatrist.
Production values here are not quite so elaborate as in other television musicals of the period, such as Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella; unlike many of those, this was not originally televised in color. Director George Schaefer keeps the action moving, though his pacing is timed with holds for laugh lines — not the most effective procedure when there is no studio audience to react, and all you hear is crickets. Many of the gags fall with a thud. It's interesting to see, however, that the original book's "damns" and "hells" were permitted on network television in 1955 with nary a raised eyebrow.
This is definitely a time capsule, one that fans of Weill and of Broadway musicals will want to check out despite its flaws. VAI has thoughtfully moved the original Oldsmobile commercials out as a separate menu item, so that the flow of the telecast is not interrupted. Additionally, there are detailed, informative program notes by musical-theater historian George Dansker.
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