It must have seemed like a solid idea. Gloucester Stage has become a primary summer destination spot for theater lovers over the past couple of years, as well as a great showcase for local actors, directors, and designers.
So why not begin the 2005 season under new producing director/associate artistic director Eric Engel with a collaboration with Tony McLean, who did quite a bit for local theater as head of Broadway in Boston (he facilitated the ''Take Me Out" production that's at the Boston Center for the Arts, for example), now that he was a freelance director himself?
Engel, McLean, and artistic director Israel Horovitz decided on ''A Grand Night for Singing," the 1993 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical revue conceived by Walter Bobbie, director of the current Boston-to-New York ''Sweet Charity" revival. Perhaps it could be another ''Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris."
And maybe it will be as much of a crowd pleaser as ''Brel" was for Gloucester two seasons ago, even transferring to a downtown Boston space. But what a bland way for Engel, himself a talented director, and McLean to begin their new careers.
It isn't the material. Conventional wisdom has it that Richard Rodgers's music became less sophisticated when he split up with lyricist Lorenz Hart and teamed with the sunnier sensibility of Oscar Hammerstein II. But there was certainly no loss in the depth of emotion delivered by the famous partners whose work began with ''Oklahoma!" in 1943 and ended with ''The Sound of Music" in 1959. No one caught the exuberance of new love or the dejection of lost love better than Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is why their work is the cornerstone of American musical theater, even in these less romantic times.
Unfortunately, this production doesn't do the duo justice. Of the three men and two women cast for the roles, only Brendan McNab and Maureen Brennan have the vocal range to make Rodgers's gorgeous melodies soar. And only McNab (who looks like Robert Goulet morphed with Russell Crowe) has the acting chops to make you believe that he really believes in the joyfulness of ''Shall We Dance?" and ''Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," or the sorrow of ''This Nearly Was Mine."
In their acting, Brennan and three younger singers, Sarah Corey, Kristen Vail, and Luke Hawkins, try to get by on a smile and a shoeshine -- or rather smiley faces and a tap dance -- plus gestures that are far too histrionic for the material.
But whenever McNab is onstage, backed by Michael Kreutz's tight six-piece band under Susan Zeeman Rogers's festive tent, the musical feels like it's grounded. ''Honey Bun" is a scorcher, while ''Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' " makes you glad that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye. When McNab's wrenching ''This Nearly Was Mine" is followed by Brennan's wide-ranging ''Something Wonderful" -- she was a Tony nominee in 1974 as Cunegonde in ''Candide" -- love's lost potential is heartbreakingly clear. As is the lost potential of Gloucester's season opener.
Ed Siegel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.