A second dam broke.
My first emotional relief from the anxiety, grief, anger and depression associated with the coronvirus crisis came on April 26 by way of "Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Celebration." This masterpiece of digital-only theater not only gathered together, distantly, today’s Broadway greats, but those stars conveyed Stephen Sondheim songs that offered immediate balm while reminding us that terrors still lurked, and always have lurked, in the world outside.
For me, the second theatrical breakthrough came Oct. 15.
Zach Theatre’s "Songs Under the Stars," staged in its People’s Plaza, was the first live, in-person performance at Austin’s regional theater since February. In the intervening time, Zach had laid off 80 percent of its staff, canceled more than 100 performances, and ran its first operating deficit in decades.
Yet the moment that radiant star Jill Blackwood, attired in a long red gown, stepped out of the Topfer Theatre lobby to sing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s "A Cockeyed Optimist" from "South Pacific," the world was briefly right again.
Blackwood was soon joined by frequent co-star Matthew Redden, upright and formal in white tie and tux, who lent his well-shaped voice and pleasing personality to more selections by Rodgers and Hammerstein. This composing team set the tone for the evening — almost every song would be uplifting yet grounded in a sense of humanity.
Before going further, let’s review Zach’s pandemic protocols: One receives a good deal of prep material in advance. Upon arrival, more than a dozen volunteers guide the guests around the plaza, which is divided into three zones: ramp and stairway to the north; cabanas along the southern and western perimeters; and folks seated on their own lawn chairs widely separately in the plaza proper.
I remained masked, while some others, feeling safe within their wellness pods like diners at an outdoor cafe, unmasked once seated.
Performed outdoors in the middle of a big city, the glorious music was punctuated by train blasts, ambulance sirens, helicopter roars. Yet all those interruptions were welcome, reassuring, since they reminded us that this was real and live and part of an actual Austin. Imagine that!
The musical selections for the hour-long concert were not all romantic ballads. Blackwood switched the mood early on with a swinging version of Irving Berlin’s "I Got the Sun in the Morning" from "Annie Get Your Gun," then followed later with a jazzy take on Lerner and Loewe’s "Almost Like Being in Love" from "Brigadoon." In doing so, she reminded us that we hear her awesome belting range too seldom in fully staged shows.
Redden and Blackwood insisted that they were not planting seeds in the mind of Zach artistic director Dave Steakley about casting in possible future shows, but the audience was already thinking it. They also had a good time with Schmidt and Jones’ "The Fantasticks," an early New York theater experience for both of them, saying they could no longer play the lovestruck teenagers in an actual show because they are "8 feet tall" and "39-ish."
Redden added extra feeling to Sondheim’s "Being Alive," while Blackwood brought back memories of her indelible performance in Sondheim’s "Sunday in the Park with George" at Zach. Then they gave us two numbers from Flaherty and Ahrens’ "Ragtime," the magnificent show that opened the Topfer theater behind them. It was Blackwood, singing the timely showstopper, "We Can Never Go Back to Before," that turned on the waterworks for me, especially since we not long ago lost Marin Mazzie, the Broadway star who introduced that song to the world.
The well-matched onstage pair closed the concert with selections from "Mary Poppins." They had starred in Steakley’s version, which brought unexpected depth to the beloved movie-turned-stage-musical.
This "On Broadway" edition of "Songs Under the Stars" continues through Oct. 18. Other themed concerts stretch through Nov. 8.
With brilliant musical director Allen Robertson and his small band guiding them every step of the way, Blackwood and Redden healed our souls while making us smile for at least a little while.