On whom the Belle told…
A review of Encores! Concert Revival of
At New York City Center
February 9, 2014
A wealthy, well-connected celebrity decides to share “Her Inspiring Life Story” with the world. This is the basis for Patrick Dennis’ classic camp novel LITTLE ME which in turn formed the book for the rollicking vaudeville of a musical with the same title. In bringing LITTLE ME to New York City Center, Encores! has spared nothing in their new concert production: great performers, superb choreography and excellent staging, all of which set off this tuneful and happily silly show to the best advantage.
Mr. Neil Simon was clearly mining comic gold when he adapted LITTLE ME for the stage and Mr. Jack Viertel’s concert version does not tarnish the show one whit. Miss Belle Poitrine has decided to dictate her memoirs to the fascinated author Patrick Dennis and give the world “the Truth” of her start as a dewy, well-proportioned lass from the wrong side of the tracks who, due to heartbreak, rose to prominent wealth, culture and social position on the right side of the tracks. She relates all the people who have helped her along through hardship, war, disaster, Hollywood and Monte Carlo beginning with her one true love and all the other men who happened along the way, bankers, performers, producers, princes and so on…
The company truly romps through the show, most of them even being without the scriptbooks that Encores! had everyone carry onstage as a constant reminder to one and all that this is a “show in concert. Only one script is ever seen and it generates one of the best laughs of the evening.
There are performers who understand the virtue of facing farce with an absolute straight face and Ms. Judy Kaye is certainly adept at this high comic art. She sails serenely through the most outrageous narratives never tipping her hand at the absurdity of a situation (and boy can they be fantastic). As a result, Ms. Kaye creates an unforgettable contemporary Belle Poitrine: a woman with an outrageous – but heroic – past and who clearly not content to rest on her massive pile of laurels. In doing so, Ms. Kaye wins the adoration of the audience and gets some of the best laughs of the evening.
Neck and neck with Ms. Kaye in capturing the admiration of the audience is the young Belle Poitrine (neé Schlumpfert) who bravely climbs her way out of highly emphasized poverty. Ms. Rachel York’s Belle is sincerity personified whether she is taking poise lessons in a hotel room with a rich banker or personally comforting a prince who has the pressures of the kingdom on his frail shoulders. Additionally, Ms. York shows each step of her character’s evolution rising from naïve innocence to sophistication maintaining a blatant nobility and intrusive purity that makes her presence onstage all the funnier and likeable. Musically as well Ms. York can do no wrong and when she and Ms. Kaye join forces in the number “Little Me” they wreak considerable pleasure.
If there is anyone who can truly blight the irrepressible Belle’s life it is Mrs. Eggleston, a wealthy snob of the first rank and the mother of Belle’s one true love. While Mrs. Eggleston’s oedipal control of her son is not complex, Ms. Harriet Harris’ starchily droll demeanor makes her the perfect cartoon villainess to root against.
If Belle cannot achieve her heart’s desire there are many, MANY other men who desire her, starting with Tony Yazbeck who plays the devoted and world-wise George Musgrove. The handsome urbane George may not be the man who can assure “happily ever after” for poor Belle, but the charming Mr. Yazbeck makes it a close thing. His rendition of “I’ve Got Your Number” is both a seductive call and a wink at the real Belle that George can see and still love.
Ah, but then there are a LOT of other men in Belle’s life: The stingy banker Amos Pinchley whom Belle converts to generosity; Monsieur Val Du Val, France’s rude answer to Maurice Chevalier, Deliveryman and Hollywood Director Otto Schnitzler and Princes AND soldiers and, and, and… All of whom are portrayed by Mr. Christian Borle.
This is the gimmick.
And a worthy gimmick it is too, for the dynamic Mr. Borle never holds back on the fun, allowing full lunacy of expression whether he is a man toggling through on-and-off amnesia, a Prince calling on his loving subjects with some rather unfortunate news or the innocent nearsighted doughboy Fred Poitrine who rapidly weds and widows Belle. Not only does Mr. Borle play his goofy roster of characters to the hilt, but he also carries their numbers quite admirably (“Real Live Girl” is a joy) – especially in the role of the ridiculously wealthy, hyper-educated true love of Belle’s life, Noble Eggleston. As Noble, Mr. Borle has gotten the deadpan demeanor down beautifully, whether he is explaining the difference between a gift and charity to young Belle (charity is better) or training a rapidly sinking linerful of people how to swim before the ship goes under. There is no doubt that Noble is something of a wet smack (even before the boat sank) but he is Belle’s drip and he loves her – which makes him kind of endearing. We know he will always be forced to leave, but Noble somehow manages return to Belle. It is commendable when an actor can carry off a constantly varying array of portrayals, but it is really something when he must also perform one consistent role that has to thread its way in between his other characters at the same time. If Mr. Borle does not deliver absolute perfection in such a complicated tangle of personas, he does pretty darned well.
Following Mr. Borle through his ever changing personalities is the worthy Mr. Robert Creighton who capably does his share to shift from role to role, matching the scenes as he ranges from the stingy banker’s craven son to a preacher in World War I to a prince’s aide-de-camp and so on.
Naturally there are a whole host of others who make up Belle’s life: Her mother Momma Schlumpfert, who, in Ms. Gealen Gilliland’s skilled hands, can make even the oldest profession seem naughtily respectable, the Buchsbaum brothers Bernie (Mr. Lee Wilkof) and Bennie (Mr. Lewis J. Stadlen) who memorably launch Belle into show business, Belle’s fascinated ghostwriter Patrick Dennis, played with amusing understatement by Mr. David Garrison and a delightful crew of talented ladies and gentlemen who range from the rag-tag denizens and highfalutin upper crust of Venezuela, Illinois to the various friends who flock around Belle at the close of her recollections.
With the changes in characters and the loosely linked scenes LITTLE ME is strongly reminiscent of the old Broadway review, Director John Rando firmly keeps the narrative focused and the action flowing, yet there is an improvised feel that is well in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of the show.
Dance-wise too there is a sort of “why not?” atmosphere that matches well with the show’s air of intense parody. Choreographer Joshua Bergasse covered a wide range of dance styles and never wastes a movement. He and the cast were clearly having a ball with the material and their enjoyment is happily infectious. Mr. Bergasse’s arrangement of the vaudeville number “Dimples” sung by Belle with her union-suit clad “police” backup was one of those hilariously outrageous moments of theater that will always be stuck in my memory.
This of course leads us to the songs with lyrics by Carolyn Leigh and music by Cy Coleman. How can one fault such an enjoyable score with numbers like “Be a Performer!” and the standard “I’ve Got Your Number,” especially when the music is performed by the Encores! Orchestra conducted by Mr. Rob Berman? Under his baton, Mr. Ralph Burns’ orchestrations sweep over the audience with real energy. Mr. Berman is definitely into “Little Me” and the musicians and singers certainly benefit from his enthusiasm.
The look of the show keeps in with Encores! tendency towards lavish simplicity. Mr. John Lee Beatty is certainly a master at using the outline of a house to indicate a hometown setting or placing a set of tables and some small backdrops to create a busy nightclub scene. His scenic designs for LITTLE ME certainly always highlight the action and never draw the focus away from it even when Mr. Beatty slips in his own small visual wisecracks (such as the Buchsbaum Brothers nameplates “BENNIE”, “& BERNIE”). With all the praise I have been lavishing on LITTLE ME it is downright curmudgeonly to mention a fault now, but I really think that Mr. Beatty ought to remember that the people in the upper gallery cannot fully see the back of the stage; so even if his wonderful gag backdrops get a large laugh from the lower two levels of the theatre, there is an entire third level of spectators that he excludes from the jokes because of he did not consider the sight lines. If this happened once or twice, I might have overlook such a problem, but such joke screens set off each major scene and leave the upper seats feeling somewhat gypped.
Still it is impossible to be resentful when we also have Mr. Ken Billington’s atmospheric lighting and Sound Designer Scott Lehrer efforts adding their own running gag to the evening by visually and audibly expressing – with some frequency – what true love means to Belle and Noble.
Mr. Paul Tazewell adds his own measure of deviltry in his costumes for LITTLE ME. They may echo the periods in which each scene is set, but they are never museum pieces – unless they need to be. Young Belle’s costumes alone are a skillful sartorial map of her advancement in the world and slyly remind us all to what her rise is attributed to.
It is a shame that this past Sunday evening was the final performance because as done at Encores! LITTLE ME clearly deserves further exposure. It is a solid, entertaining show that reminds us how wonderful it is to simply have a good time at the theater and walk out afterwards with a broad grin and a strong desire to buy the show’s album.
About the reviewer:
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York.
Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com
Cast & Credits
Book by Neil Simon
Lyrics by Carolyn Leigh
Music by Cy Coleman
Based on the novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen
and Television/Belle Poitrine, by Patrick Dennis
Directed by John Rando
Choreography by Joshua Bergasse
Starring Christian Borle, Robert Creighton, David Garrison, Harriet Harris, Judy Kaye, Lewis J. Stadlen, Lee Wilkof, Tony Yazbeck, and Rachel York
With Cameron Adams, Stanley Bahorek, Meggie Cansler, Gaelen Gilliland, Arlo Hill, Reed Kelly, Justin Keyes, Eloise Kropp, Josh Lamon, Jenny Laroche, Samantha Massell, Skye Mattox, Paul McGill, Jason Mills, Vivian Nixon, Lindsay O’Neil, Manuel Stark, Clay Thomson, Kathy Voytko, and Amos Wolff
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