GUEST REVIEWER: We’ll Take Manhattan! A review of Encores! concert reconstruction of Cole Porter’s THE NEW YORKERS

We’ll Take Manhattan

A review of Encores! concert reconstruction of

Cole Porter’s
THE NEW YORKERS

At New York City Center
March 22, 2017

by Moshe Bloxenheim

 THE NEW YORKERS originally featured specialty acts, material built around Mr. Jimmy Durante’s unique personality and took a very amused look at the world of Park Avenue Society, Gangsters and Prohibition, making no bones about the fact that this was not a show for “The Little Old Lady from Dubuque” though I daresay she might have had a whale of a time too. Encores! manages in a case of sheer theatrical chutzpah to piece together a fine entertainment that gives an impression of the enjoyment that was to be found in the original 1930 show even if an accurate reconstruction is not in cards.

Mr. Cole Porter’s score alone is well worth the price of admission. Admittedly many numbers are hits imported from other shows, but they seem to make themselves perfectly at home sometimes showing up in surprisingly adroit ways. Mr. Jack Viertel assists in this with a concert adaptation of Mr. Herbert Fields original book that allows the plot to entertain and move the show onward without ever forgetting that the songs come first.

The gangsters, good time girls, vapid socialites, adulterers, hoofers, gigolos, prisoners and so on that inhabit THE NEW YORKERS are all likeable and occasionally endearing and make the most of whatever story had first been furnished by Mr. E. Ray Goetz and the famous New Yorker Magazine cartoonist, Mr. Peter Arno: Alice Wentworth, a pretty socialite, is engaged to marry the stodgy, wealthy and reputable Phillip Booster. She expects her marriage to be like that of her parents, Dr. Windham and Mrs. Gloria Wentworth. The Doctor is the swain of the entertainer Lola McGee and the famous inventor of the pick-me-up drug Alcodol while Gloria has Captain Hillary Trask as her special pick-me-up. When the handsome young Captain goes off with Lola, the Doctor and Gloria are rather nonplussed to have to go home together. All plans for a similar life with fiancé Phillip go out the window the moment Alice meets the dashing speakeasy owner Al Spanish. Al and Alice are quite smitten and, for good measure, Philip falls hard for Al’s girlfriend, the singer Mona Low. Unfortunately, complications arrive in the guise of Feet McGeegan, who wants Al to keep out of the Caviar Racket (as if rum-sunning wasn’t hazardous enough). Merry mayhem ensues with some frequency and lots of great music and dancing. Through it all comedian and drink Inventor supreme Jimmie Deegan struts his stuff, the Three Girl Friends Trio and the Varsity Eight chorus sound and look stunning, and jokes about prohibition, politics, society, prison and Cole Porter references are tossed in with happy abandon. Oh yeah – it all ends right.

Delightful Ms. Scarlett Strallen ensures that Alice Wentworth is no mere pretty face, making the most of the character’s savvy naiveté and getting her some wonderful laughs in Alice’s discovery of Real Life (in the form of Al Spanish). Ms. Strallen can also deliver a song with the best of them making the well-known “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love” and “Night and Day” just two of the many high points of a very well scored evening.

Anti-antihero Al Spanish may be a gun-toting gangster but Mr. Tam Mutu makes him the perfect gentleman from the wrong side of the tracks. He exhibits a sort of Gee Whiz quality that makes him the good guy even as he guns down his rivals. Mr. Mutu has an ability to put a number over that looks downright effortless and yet so enjoyable.

Usually a musical has one main lead couple and one subplot. But THE NEW YORKERS delivers far more.

Ms. Mylinda Hull gives a wonderful performance as Mona Low. Mona may be losing her Al to Alice but Ms. Hull can make one quite believe that this torch singer knows how to set the stolid Phillip Booster on fire and Mr. Todd Buonopane’s Phillip is a hoot as he transforms from Alice’s burden to Mona’s pleasure.

Alice’s parents are the second couple as they discover that although infidelity is lots of fun, it is always nice to come home to one another. Dr. Windham Wentworth is one of those urbane if slightly vague men-about-town and Byron Jennings plays him with fine understatement. Ms. Ruth Williamson makes Gloria Wentworth a fine contrast to the good Doctor, giving us a woman-about-town who might like home better. Her delicious delivery of “The Physician” comes across is the complaint of a lady who feels a bit ashamed that she much prefers her husband to her boyfriend – if he would only give her a glance!

Then there is Lola McGee and Captain Hillary Trask. These two may not end up together living happily ever after, but Ms. Robyn Hurder and Mr. Tyler Lansing Weaks ensure that they and the audience have a good time for the present. When Ms. Hurder delivers “Please Don’t Make Me Be Good” it is clear that she already is.

Then there is Mr. Kevin Chamberlain in the role of Jimmy Deegan – the comic mixologist. Just the knowledge that Mr. Jimmy Durante originated the part makes his memory a hard act to follow. Still, Mr. Chamberlain makes Jimmy Deegan truly funny and gets the best out of the silly dialogue, yet he is able to add enough Durante mannerisms to make us see how Mr. Durante might have laid them in the aisles in 1930 just as Mr. Chamberlain proceeds to do in 2017. His Act One closer “Wood” is an example of how great absurd comedy can really last.

Aiding and abetting Mr. Chamberlain are his two comic and dancing sidekicks Monahan and Gregory, played with gleeful skill by Messrs. Clyde Alves and Jeffery Schecter.

While Jimmy Deegan is a unique comedy turn all by himself, there are several other specialty acts that deserve much praise:

The Gangster Feet McGeegan is the villain of the show in the mold of Snidely Whiplash or Witch Hazel. So naturally as one of those characters who deserves killing, THE NEW YORKERS obliges, having Feet coming to an untoward end over and over and over again. Mr. Arnie Burton manages to give him just the right level of cartoonish melodrama proving that death may be easy and comedy is hard but comic death is an art all its own. As an added highlight, Mr. Burton stops the show with the brilliant patter number “Let’s Not Talk About Love”.

Other musical delights include the trio of Mss. Christine DiGiallonardo, Lindsay Roberts and Kathryn McCreary as the Three Girl Friends and the Varsity Eight in the guise of Messrs. Matt Bauman, Sam Bolen, Brian Flores, Matthew Griffin, Curtis Holland, Timothy McDevitt, Brendon Stimson and Cody Williams, who recreate the numbers originated by the megaphone-wielding Waring Pennsylvanians.

Many of these performers double up in several roles but Mr. Eddie Korbich laudably wins the multiple casting honors as he appears and reappears as a doctor, a nightclub major domo, a waiter at a deli, a policeman, a butler…

The rest of the company deserve top marks for their acting and dancing, but even with the wealth of pleasure offered onstage, one performer still stands out indelibly: Ms. Cyrille Aimée delivers “Love for Sale” on an empty stage without any introduction and brings down the house. This lonely, haunting performance on its own would have made THE NEW YORKERS worth seeing.

Director John Rando has no trouble with the fact that THE NEW YORKERS is a series of songs with barely enough plot to keep the show from being designated a revue or vaudeville (not that there would be a problem with either one). But Mr. Rando ensures that even with all the numbers being launched in so many ways by different people and acts that everyone gets to shine and nothing ever clashes so that the show buckets along engagingly to its loopy conclusion (the memorable “I Happen To Like New York” chorale). Mr. Chris Bailey’s choreography has a lot to do with this because so much movement and dancing carry THE NEW YORKERS forward. A gangster battle where the machine gun fire is enacted by tap-dance emphasizes the period, plot and cartoonish nature of the show since the assailants and their would-be targets just keep happily tapping and firing. More than that, the specialties are clearly staged to make the most of the talents involved yet invoke their predecessors in the roles. In fact, where many songs have at least a line to cue them in, Messrs. Rando and Viertel know that sometimes a song should be left to fend for itself and ensure that a moment like Ms. Cyrille Aimée’s singing of “Love for Sale” stands alone as the jewel of the show as the original piece did in 1930.

This care with THE NEW YORKERS songs and music is obviously shared by the Rob Berman and the Encores! Orchestra. Mr. Berman’s arrangements and conducting and Messrs. Josh Clayton’s and Larry Moore’s orchestrations are out to get the best of musicians and actors and all deliver beautifully. Even when a number is an import from another show and of a slightly different style (like “The Physician” from the English show NYMPH ERRANT), it just seems to be a natural fit in THE NEW YORKERS. Certainly it would have been braver and wiser for the show to have selected more obscure pieces from Mr. Porter’s songbook and give them the currency they may deserve but I enjoyed myself too much to quibble with what is on offer.

The look of the show is also quite striking with designs that appear as an idealized 1930. Thanks to Mr. Allen Moyer’s scenery and Mr. Alejo Vietti’s costumes one can see glitz and glamor even in Sing-Sing prison and Mr. Ken Billingtons’s top-notch lighting makes even the shimmering reflections of the ladies’ lamé gowns become part of the visual pleasure.

I was a little surprised at the unevenness of Mr. Dan Moses Scheier’s sound system, but besides a few aural fades in Act One, everything sounded pretty good, upholding the illusion that you could hear the voices from the actors rather than the loudspeakers.

THE NEW YORKERS is a loving and varicolored bouquet to the people, foibles and theater of that 1930’s city but it still has an enchanting effect in today’s Empire City as well. As with all first public Encores! performances there was a slightly tentative feeling as the performers gauged how the material was landing, but all went wonderfully well and I am sure that the future performances will only get better and even funnier.

Encores! final Performance of THE NEW YORKERS was 7 PM Sunday Night, March 26, 2017.

About the reviewer:

MOSHE BLOXENHEIM
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

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GUEST REVIEWER: Encores! Concert staging of CABIN IN THE SKY

Devil may care.

A review of Encores! concert staging of
cabin

at New York City Center
February 11, 2016

CABIN IN THE SKY is one of those battles between the Heavenly and Hellish forces over a soul – that of the hapless Little Joe to be specific – that encourage the spectators to root for the good and grand even if there seems to be much more entertainment in the bad and brassy. To be fair, both sides are blessed with the marvelous music by Mr. Vernon Duke and the fine lyrics of Mr. John Latouche as well as some eye-catching choreography inspired by Mr. George Balanchine’s work for the original production, but even at its most buoyant moments, CABIN IN THE SKY’s Virtue always has a whiff of smug schoolroom morality. I can’t say if this was inherent in Mr. Lynn Root’s original book for the show or the result of Messrs. Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Jack Viertel’s concert adaptation for Encores! but no one is exactly at the edge of their seat rooting for Righteousness. Especially since the Devil has the charm, the campier lines and most of the best dance numbers.

Nevertheless, the cast of CABIN IN THE SKY provides some very winning performances that often transcend the limitations and triteness of the material.

Mr. Chuck Cooper is a petulant delight playing the Head Man: a son of the Devil who is trying to “make good” in his Poppa’s business by getting Little Joe’s soul. While his satanic efforts may not exactly breed success, they are always diverting and earn well deserved applause. Musically as well, Mr. Cooper never flags, and his rendition of “Do What You Wanna Do” backed up by his superb assistants in evil – Ms. Tiffany Mann and Messrs. Dennis Stowe and André Garner – is a veritable crowd pleaser.

blog-cabincast
On the other side of the scale, Mr. Norm Lewis makes a gratifyingly caring Lord’s General, earnestly fighting for good but with a level of amusement that keeps him from being a cardboard seraph. The problem is, that even while the Lord’s General is trying to help Petunia and Little Joe, the best argument he can offer up is the very engaging but still tame “It’s Not So Bad to Be Good.” Not exactly heady stuff for Little Joe after the production numbers that the Head Man brings onstage. Basically Mr. Lewis’ Lord’s General and his angels – played by the worthy Ms. Kristolyn Lloyd and Messrs. Jared Joseph and Nicholas Ward – are the sort of beings you would bring home to impress your folks, whereas Saturday night is more entertaining in Mr. Cooper’s diabolically fun company.

10-cabin-in-the-sky.w529.h352As for the object of Good and Bad’s dispute. Little Joe is a schmo, yet, we don’t wonder why Petunia bothers with him, because Mr. Michael Potts makes Little Joe Jackson a likeable and sympathetic hero. Indeed, Mr. Potts makes even Little Joe’s enjoyment of his newly virtuous life believable. His playfulness when singing “In My Old Virginia Home (On the River Nile)” with Petunia makes us fully appreciate why his wife has been fighting for him when she obviously can do better.

Of course, there is nothing like another woman to mess things up for a man and Georgia Brown – as played by the talented Ms. Carly Hughes – is perfect for the job. Georgia Brown is one of those terribly attractive and self-assured ladies who is perplexed when she cannot get what she wants – such as Little Joe. Ms. Hughes gives her pursuit of Little Joe a good dash of humor as well as spice, and plays off Mr. Michael Potts most effectively.

Fighting to save her man from Hell is Little Joe’s devoted wife Petunia. By rights, this lady should be a romantic doormat, but the admirable actress billed as “LaChanze” creates a plausible woman with backbone who can see the good in her husband and lovingly draw it out. This heroine is both a worthy wife and darned good company who easily captivates the audience with numbers like “Taking a Chance on Love.” When it appears that she has reached the last straw, Ms. LaChanze’s Petunia changes dramatically into a woman who can best even the worldly Georgia Brown and bring down the house with the impressively sung number “Savannah”

bww-tv-watch-highlights-of-lachanze-norm-lewis--more-in-encores-cabin-in-the-sky_1

The rest of the company is truly first-rate and deliver many high points in the show, most memorably the wonderful and boisterous “Dry Bones” which in itself is worth the price of admission.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson creates many memorable moments in the action of CABIN IN THE SKY but while I was entertained and interested, I was never really gripped by the sometime sitcom setup of the story (which Mr. Santiago Hudson also had a hand in). There is unevenness in the narrative that saps some of the drama out of the twists in the plot.

On the other hand, Ms. Camile A. Brown’s choreography provides impressive pieces of dance and movement. But at times certain numbers seem to get lost in a sort of Balanchine recital mode that merely extends the performances instead of enhancing the songs or adding to the story.

Musically the Encores! Orchestra conducted by Mr. Rob Berman is superb and Mr. Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations of Mr. Vernon Duke’s music is a joy to listen to, taking full advantage of the chorus’ Gospel voices along with a big band sound reminiscent of the early 1940’s. Everything is properly amplified by Mr. Scott Lehrer’s audio designs, though the body microphones seem to be a little more obvious than intended.

Keeping with the concert staging, Ms. Anna Louizos’ sets are basic yet very effective – especially the opposing twin thrones in which are seated the Head Man and Lord’s General. Ms. Karen Perry is just as skilled in providing attractive costumes that go far in illustrating the personalities of the characters from the cheerful red garments of the Head Man and his henchmen to the white suit and amusing silver lamé cape worn by the Lord’s General. Everything is lit to good advantage by Mr. Ken Billington.

With its unequal book and overabundance of “Balanchine,” this CABIN IN THE SKY could have used more work on its dramatic foundation. But if it does not approach perfection, CABIN IN THE SKY is often very entertaining, with splendid songs and a praiseworthy cast who work hard to give the show a substance that it might not otherwise have.

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

Originally produced in 1940, Cabin in the Sky followed Porgy and Bess in celebrating African-American music and dance traditions. The musical tells the story of “Little Joe” Jackson (Michael Potts), a charming ne’er-do-well who dies in a saloon brawl and is given six months on earth to prove his worth to the Lord’s General (Tony Award nominee Norm Lewis) and the Devil’s Head Man (Tony Award winner Chuck Cooper)—all while struggling to remain true to his loving wife Petunia (Tony Award winner LaChanze) and resist the wiles of temptress Georgia Brown (Carly Hughes). Long considered a lost treasure, the score of Cabin in the Sky—which includes jazz hits like “Taking a Chance on Love” and “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe”—will be restored to its original glory for Encores!

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Guest Review of Encores! “THE BAND WAGON” at New York City Center

Off the wagon.

A Guest Review of Encores!

“THE BAND WAGON”

at New York City Center

November 8, 2014

THE BAND WAGON is an energetic celebration of the music and lyrics of Messrs. Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz. Based on the 1953 MGM film THE BAND WAGON, Mr. Douglas Carter Beane uses the original screenplay by Ms. Betty Comden and Mr. Adolph Green to provide a workmanlike pastiche of scenes in which to launch the songs; many of which had originally been created for the 1931 Broadway review of the same name. And what a lovely score there is, with fun numbers like “I Love Louisa,” the wistful “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” and the intense “Dancing in the Dark” to name but a few. All are played with the flair and obvious pleasure that has come to be a hallmark of the Encores! Orchestra which is led for THE BAND WAGON by Mr. Todd Ellison. Indeed there is such a wealth of beloved songs that the couple behind me had a lovely time quietly singing along with the music onstage and I had not the heart to turn around and ask them to stop.

The plot is simple: Hollywood Screen Idol Tony Hunter is slipping at the box office and in hopes of revitalizing his career Tony has accepted the invitation of British Thespian Jeffrey Cordova to star in a new Broadway show. Tony arrives in New York only to learn to his reluctant surprise that the show is going to be a musical that Jeffrey will direct – his first musical to be precise. Adding more to Tony’s hesitation is the fact that his former friends Lily and Lester Martin – who aren’t exactly thrilled to be working with Tony again – are supposed to supply the book and score to this new production. Toss in Paul Byrd, a self-important choreographer, and his girlfriend Garielle Gerard, a former member of the Tony Hunter fan club and you know that there are going to be complications, hijinks, tantrums and spur-of-the-moment decisions of such significance before they make it to Broadway, that I wondered why they didn’t simply resort to Judy and Mickey’s barn – actually someone DOES ask that same question in the show.

The cast works very hard to flesh out the cinematic shadows they are saddled with. Mr. Brian Stokes Mitchell gives a pleasantly light performance as Tony Hunter that is in keeping with the “aw shucks” 1950’s ambiance. In fact he’s a somewhat more entertaining but slightly flawed “Father Knows Best” figure; trying to marshal his troupe to a successful first night and at the same time renew his career and inspiration. But there was very little Tony Hunter for Mr. Mitchell to work with so I took Mr. Mitchell at his word that this was his role and just enjoyed watching him try to make the best of it. Song and dance-wise he was simply delightful.

The Great British Dramatic Actor Jeffrey Cordova is a theatrical babe in the woods who is such a good sport and so eager to take up the latest half-baked idea that he would be absolutely impossible to believe as a character had not Mr. Tony Sheldon had so much fun playing him with a wink and a nudge. Jeffery is unreal, but Mr. Sheldon makes him amusingly good company.

Complementing Jeffrey Cordova is his devoted right-hand man Hal Meadows. Hal is down to earth and often keeps Jeffrey from running off the rails. As the show proceeds Hal is often the one who is there to keep things moving forward for everybody. Mr. Don Stephenson plays Hal with wonderful understatement often providing an ideal counterpoint to the more volatile “creative” people.

Speaking of volatile, Mr. Michael Berresse is the egocentric choreographer Paul Byrd. Byrd is something of the heavy of the piece – determined to have an advanced ballet produced in the show at all costs (Boo! Hiss!). Thankfully Mr. Berresse remembers that this is a MOVIE version of Broadway and NOT “A Chorus Line” and if he does not quite twirl a moustache and mutter “Curses,” he does exude a villainous single-mindedness to his plot to inflict his interminable ballet upon the public, even at the expense of the show.

It is surprising that Paul Byrd has a girlfriend as talented and idealistic as Gabrielle Gerard who clearly seems to overshadow him. There is something of a blushing “Gee Whiz” demeanor in Gabrielle that Ms. Laura Osnes makes believable. Here is a sweet and likable young lady who has something of a full story to tell us. Better still Ms. Osnes makes us root for her.

Lester Martin is another incompletely drawn character; he is there to sit at the piano and push his music while worrying about losing his wife Lily to Tony Martin. Somehow Mr. Michael McKean brings him sweetly to life and makes us care for this man who knows that his wife had settled for him after Tony left for Hollywood.

Indeed I too was in love with Ms. Tracey Ullman’s Lily Martin. Lily is not glamorous nor does she have any major dance number, but she is the most three dimensional and sympathetic of all the people trying to bring this musical to a successful Broadway opening. Here we have a successful woman who was deeply in love and only married her best friend Lester because she could not have Tony. She has to work out her feelings for both men while trying to keep the show from closing out of town. Watching Ms. Ullman’s superb portrayal of Lily, I thought, “What an amazing musical there might have been had Lily Martin been the focus of THE BAND WAGON – not Tony Hunter.”

The rest of the ensemble do their best to be believable city people and show folk, not even cracking a smile during the most ludicrous of Paul Byrd’s dance excesses.

The problem with adapting a well-known and beloved film into another form is that the original is a ghostly presence that haunts whatever new version is created. In the case of THE BAND WAGON an exorcism would have been a good idea. Mr. Douglas Carter Beane’s book does not want to risk alienating the audience who remembers the original – like the musical duo I mentioned before – but at the same time he often forgets that the speedy development of the plot points that might work in a movie may come across as incomplete onstage. Interactions that can mean a lot in close-up need more fleshing out when on a big stage. Matters that should be detailed are merely relayed to the audience in a second hand way, sometimes with minimal exposition: Who really cares about Tony Hunter and his bad movie making decisions?

Director and Choreographer Kathleen Marshal has to make the most of the uneven script but she cannot get beyond some of the moments that are staged for the sole purpose of setting a song that has no logical place in the script. She tries to interest us in these musical numbers that are often part of the Broadway bound show in a show but beloved as some of these scenes are in the movie (like “Triplets” and “Louisiana Hayride”) it might have been better just to assemble them as some sort of independent entre-act rather than waste time in a painful attempt to make them integral. Again, I have to hearken back to Mr. Beane’s adaptation. I understand that this BAND WAGON is based on Hollywood’s take on Broadway, but the creaky conventionalities (commercial entertainment versus ART, the comeback of the has-been, etc…) and the hackneyed theme of the Lester and Lily Martin’s plot for the Broadway Bound show are either a spoof or a lousy script.

Even when there are departures that seem promising, everything is firmly buried in what Mr. Beane assumes are the Hollywood conventions of the day. Mr. Beane claims the script was a tribute to Ms. Comden’s and Mr. Green’s work as a writing team. As an admirer of the duo, I had this sinking feeling that they’d have demanded a rewrite Happily when the musical numbers get going they are a lot of fun to hear and watch. Ms. Kathleen Marshal does know how to make performers move and some of the staging is memorable such as for the song “I Love Louisa.”

Mr. Derek McLane’s excellent sets and Mr. Peter Kaczorowski’s lighting followed and highlighted the action smoothly, while Mr. William Ivey Long’s costumes were very much of the 1950’s and he allowed himself a sly joke of dressing some performers in the show within the show as recognizable characters from other musicals of the era. But little point: Ms. Osnes please tuck in ALL of your hair for “Triplets” – it just spoils the point when the three babies sing about how they are all alike when one of them is sporting long flowing curls down past her shoulders. Then too in “Triplets”, Mr. Brian Ronan’s sound design is either muffling some of the lyrics or amplifying the performers’ mumbling of them – and not only in that number.

I feel like a grump writing down all these criticisms – especially as the audience seemed to be having a whale of a time. And I enjoyed THE BAND WAGON too for what it was: a pleasant diversion that entertained in spite of its story – not because of it.

  • Cast & Credits

    Book by Douglas Carter Beane
    From the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
    Music by Arthur Schwartz
    Lyrics by Howard Dietz
    Based on the classic MGM film
    Produced by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures
    Featuring The Encores! Orchestra
    Guest Music Director Todd Ellison
    Directed and Choreographed by Kathleen Marshall

    Starring Brian Stokes Mitchell, Tracey Ullman, Michael McKean, Tony Sheldon, Laura OsnesWith Michael Berresse, Don Stephenson, Lawrence Alexander, John Carroll, Joyce Chittick, Jason DePinto, Ericka Hunter, Dionna Thomas Littleton, Gavin Lodge, Erica Mansfield, Brittany Marcin, Paul McGill, Kaitlin Mesh, Jermaine R. Rembert, Brandon Rubendall, Jennifer Savelli, Eric Sciotto, Samantha Zack

  • An Encores! Special Event

    The Band Wagon

    • Mainstage
    • Nov 6 – 16, 2014
    • Tickets start at $30 available here:

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

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REVIEW: Encores! concert revival of IRMA LA DOUCE – New York City Center – May 11, 2014

Giving La Douce her due

A review of Encores! concert revival of IRMA LA DOUCE

New York City Center – May 11, 2014

by Moshe Bloxenheim, Guest Reviewer

IRMA LA DOUCE is a fairy tale of Paris:  a very adult and amoral fantasy set in the underworld of Le Milieu where everyone has a descriptive name, socializes around a zinc bar and assumes a happily cynical sang-froid about the seamier side of life.  This shady place is brightened by the optimistically down-to-earth Irma La Douce, who is the carnal and emotional outlet for all the men of le Milieu.  That is until a young law student by the name of Nestor-Le-Fripe (or Nestor-the-Shabby) falls passionately in love with sweet Irma.  Jealously Nestor tries to keep Irma to himself, adopting the disguise of Monsieur Oscar an alleged elderly millionaire who hires Irma exclusively.  Meanwhile Irma’s boss Polyte-Le-Mou and his associate the Police Inspector do not care for Nestor’s upsetting of their financial and sexual applecart and would be delighted with any pretext to remove the young student from the scene.  Of course the young man supplies them with a reason, when, tired of being his own rival, Nestor decides to have Monsieur Oscar disappear and everyone assumes that he has murdered the wealthy man in a fit of lover’s rage.

 Like the storyline, the credits for IRMA LA DOUCE are a bit complicated having an original French book and lyrics by Monsieur Alexandre Breffort and an English adaptation by Messrs. Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman.  This was then adapted for the Encores! stage by Mr. John Doyle who also directed the current revival.

The music by M. Marguerite Monnot is a delight in any language whether proudly sardonic as in “Noble Sons of France” or giving us a defiantly sentimental finale with “Christmas Child.”  Under Conductor Rob Berman, the Encores! Orchestra certainly makes the most of Mr. Andre Popp’s orchestrations (augmented by Mr. Robert Ginzler).

All the same the Encores! revival of IRMA LA DOUCE seems to me to be at something of a loss on how to effectively juggle the many requirements of a story that often demands point blank acceptance from the audience.  While I appreciated the gleefully raffish presentation of a bourgeois underclass that gave a sort of Gallic “3-Penny Opera” flavor to IRMA LA DOUCE, I could not enjoy the show with the same zest experienced by several discerning friends of mine: I kept feeling that something vital is missing.

 For the most part I cannot blame the cast for this.  The denizens of the underworld are as amusing a group of charmers as one could desire.  Polyte-Le-Mou (‘Le Boss”) might be a bluff bully and the Police Inspector is as corrupt as they come, but excellent Messrs. Chris Sullivan and Stephen DeRosa keep them well in the realm of make-believe villains who can be unnerved by words of legal Latin or brought to tears by the slap of a working girl.  Even more enjoyable are the likably comic cutthroats Jojo-Les-Yeaux-Sales, Roberto-Les-Diams, Persil-Le-Noir and (I kid you not) Frangipane.  These fellows, played with wonderful enthusiasm by Messrs. Zachary James, Ken Krugman, Ben Crawford and Sam Bolen respectively, are both delightfully self-serving, yet charmingly familial.

Living respectably on the wrong side of the law as they do, it would take some doing to disturb such a crew’s peace of mind.  So it is all the funnier to see Mr. Rob McClure’s Nestor-Le-Fripe naively wander into Le Milieu and turn their world upside-down.  Mr. McClure exhibits a gee-whiz sort of sensibility that would usually be found in a character who puts on shows in a barn or rises to the top of a corporate ladder by following a paperback manual.  And what with delivering numbers like the romantic “Our Language of Love” with Irma or Nestor’s hilarious lament to a double life “Wreck of a Mec” it is only natural for this Nestor-Le-Fripe to win over the girl, the gang and the audience.  But Mr. McClure doesn’t stop there.  As the bearded elderly Monsieur Oscar, Mr. McClure is wickedly droll, playing the self-created rival of Nestor and soon the jealous competitors are practically acting each other off the stage – not a bad feat for a single actor to carry off.  Yet Mr. McClure never forgets that Nestor is a man truly torn by love and jealousy and his eventual separation from Irma rises touchingly above the farcical complications and comic turns.

With the storybook nature of the show, it would be quite right to have a Narrator who keeps everyone and thing in order and Mr. Malcolm Gets performs this vital role of Bob-le-Hotu, the proprietor of the Bar des Inquiets in which the story unfolds.  Mr. Gets gives the air of one who has seen it all and who knows what has to be done, whether he is introducing characters, setting up a scene or handing over props.  Perhaps Mr. Gets is being low-key, but I just wish he would be a little more amused and invested in the world he offers us.  After all, the opening song “Valse Milieu” is not a song sung by a man who is losing his taste for dance.

But what of Irma, the sweet one, herself?

Ms. Jennifer Bowles is a singing, dancing powerhouse who is an admirable part of the ensemble.  Her bouyant rendition of the big number “Dis-Donc” and her sweet performance of “The Letter” are highlights of the show.  But to me, Irma’s being one of an ensemble is a problem.  I understand the rightness of Irma being very matter-of-fact in the aspects of her life (being both a hooker and a nice girl), but Ms. Bowles and Director John Doyle seem to forget that Irma is the title character – the only female lead – with her own streetwise rules and standards.  In a show where several chairs placed atop bar can become a ship or we can delight in the hallucinated Arctic ballet, why can’t this Irma completely impose her vision of the world on the audience: whether to convincingly demonstrate her prerogative to buy a man a drink or to maintain her faith in the reality of Monsieur Oscar (even if it is just Nestor in a beard)?  I think Ms. Bowles could be far more effective if she would remember that Irma is supposed to be the Princess of this Fairy Tale: the déclassé Darla Hood to this mature Our Gang Comedy.

The rest of the Ensemble well earns their praise as they roam and cavort across the stage in the persona of various low-lives, officials, and clientele and so on.

 Mr. John Doyle’s direction is often very good.  Whether we are in the lowest dive or watching prisoners in Devil’s Island, Mr. Doyle always keeps it on an endearingly cartoonish level so that the brutal reality never intrudes on the whimsy and romance of the tale.  His staging of Nestor’s murder trial is a delightfully flippant depiction of judicial corruption and breaks Nestor’s heart as effectively as would the most sinister indictment of the legal system.  But as I have said before, something seems to be lacking with Irma and I wonder if Mr. Doyle could not find a satisfactory balance between the wholesome, healthy girl and the ma’amselle of the streets on which he could root Ms. Jennifer Bowles’ performance.  Whatever the reason, I feel that Irma deserved to be stronger and the show itself better.

Still Mr. Chase Brock’s choreography is very imaginative and makes for some wonderful moments on a stage evocatively set by Mr. John Lee Beatty to be the all-encompassing Bar des Inquiets.  With Mr. Paul Miller’s clever lighting and Mr. Scott Lehrer’s sound designs, Messrs. Doyle and Beatty are able to let the audience leave the bar and travel around Paris and even across the world.

Ms. Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes are nicely atmospheric with the gentlemen looking quite understated in their scarves, trench coats, sweaters and suits (save for Polyte-Le-Mou who contrasts with them nicely in the checked jacket and saddle shoes that seem appropriate for a small time boss).  Irma’s red dress with its heart-patterned bodice is both suitably alluring and amusingly reputable.

I am always grateful when Encores! gives me the opportunity to discover a show I know nothing about.  But by the final curtain of IRMA LA DOUCE, I was left wondering why I felt so unmoved after so much effort and imagination had been expended.

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

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REVIEW: Encores! concert revival of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA

That’s Amore!

A review of Encores! concert revival of
THE MOST HAPPY FELLA

At New York City Center – April 6, 2014
by Moshe Bloxenheim, Guest Reviewer

Within the first few minutes of the overture of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, the strings, horns and cymbals of the overture joined in a musical
exclamation that sent a thrill up my back which pretty much stayed there until the final notes of the evening, when we all began to shuffle out of City Center feeling that we had just witnessed something truly great.
Yet the plot is a simple one, focusing on everyday people; their problems and joys. Mr. Frank Loesser’s book of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA – based on the play THEY KNEW WHAT THEY WANTED by Mr. Sidney Howard – features no villains or changing epochs. Set on and around Tony Espozito’s ranch in Napa Valley, California, THE MOST HAPPY FELLA shows how two ordinary people can pick themselves up from the wreck of their dreams and build something newer and better. Insecure about his age and looks, the Italian-born farmer Tony encloses a picture of his handsome young foreman Joe in a letter to the young lady he has been wooing by mail. When the romantically dubbed Rosabella actually arrives at the farm to meet and marry the farmer she has been writing to for so long, she is tragically disillusioned; not merely learning that her wooer isn’t the handsome young man she had anticipated, but that she also must deal with the crumpled and battered body of the much older Tony who has had a serious accident on his way to pick her up from the train. In shock and yielding to the pleas of the badly injured Tony and his friends, Rosabella marries him. On this tragic wedding night, Rosabella is unable to cope with the total overturn of her expectations and gives herself to the thoughtless but responsive Joe. It is then up to Tony and Rosabella to truly discover each other and try to make some sort of life for themselves. That they triumph so wonderfully and believably in this production is a tribute to both Mr. Loesser and the Encores! company.
If I had to point out the true star of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA it would be Mr. Frank Loesser’s sweeping and amazingly varied score. There are some very beloved standards in this song book; “Standing on the Corner”, “Joey, Joey, Joey” and of course that love song to Urban Texas “Big D.” However, it isn’t just that there are some wonderful tunes. Mr. Loesser’s music and lyrics carry the listener along, unfolding the action and expressing the emotions of the performers. This isn’t drama simply accompanied by song: it is all of one piece. Perhaps that is one reason why there is a tendency to call THE MOST HAPPY FELLA ”operatic.” The developing love of Tony and Rosabella is a simple and beautiful thing to behold, but when they express their joyful desire for one another in the number “My Heart is So Full of You” the show was well and truly stopped by the cries and applause of an audience that was deeply moved.

Excellent music and drama alone was only a part of the sensation that was Encores! THE MOST HAPPY FELLA. The cast sounded great and acted brilliantly. The man of the title, Tony Esposito is a truly good man who wants to achieve something better than he has – marriage, a family, a loving wife. Mr. Shuler Hensley was a very likeable Tony, whom we can easily sympathize with even when he makes the fateful photo switch. Mr. Hesley made it clear that throughout the show that Tony always had that bad deed in the back of his mind and he made us feel for the poor man and root for him as well. Musically, Mr. Hensley acted his songs with intensity rather than trying to be a perfect tenor. Indeed, he was able to use his body mike to great effect, taking moments that might have sounded technically fine in other hands but used a whisper here, an outright shout there or a breaking voice to bring drama and emotion to this rustic farmer. Happily as well, Mr. Hensley’s Tony may not have been the carelessly handsome Joey, but he had a rough-hewn attractiveness too, making Rosabella’s eventual love for Tony on both a physical and emotional level very believable.
Just as convincing was Ms. Laura Benanti’s Rosabella. This character is pretty enough to have men appreciate her, but also smart enough to know that she is one of many attractive waitresses and that she ought to find something better while she has the chance. Ms. Benanti knew how to exhibit both the good humor and fear of a woman who may have seen more of the world than she would have liked to. Rosabella can discover and eventually love the goodness in Tony, and like Tony she is a nice person who makes a mistake that she has to live with. In Ms. Benanti’s characterization, we wanted this heroine to be happy and feel deeply for her when things go wrong. Rosabella was already touching in her songs like “Somebody Somewhere” but once she meets Tony, Ms. Benanti musically met Mr. Hensley on equal terms of emotional power and dramatic skill.
I overheard someone describe Mr. Cheyenne Jackson’s Joey as “detached,” but is that a bad thing for this drifting foreman? Handsome and sounding better than ever, Mr. Jackson showed someone who wants to keep to himself free of any complications. When Joey feels that he is developing roots he pulls up and moves on. Mr. Jackson clearly understood that somebody like that would avoid emotional investment in the people around him. He was at his most emotionally open when he wistfully sang about leaving in the memorable “Joey, Joey Joey.”
Another isolated soul is Tony’s spinster sister Marie. Marie has long been Tony’s caregiver and support. She does not want to be hateful but she does not want her brother and Rosabella to be husband and wife either. So Ms. Jessica Molaskey had a difficult task as Marie: how could she show a woman who wants to break up our hero and heroine without making her an out and out villainess? Ms. Molaskey presented a very frightened woman who fears a future she cannot imagine. Even with her verbal digs at Tony and her concern over Rosabella we could feel sympathy with Marie who is seeing the life she worked so hard at getting changed beyond recognition. Indeed, Ms. Molaskey’s Marie made me wish that we might have seen more of her feelings and interactions. As it was, this Marie clearly had a story and a life outside of the play we were watching.
Only one person seemed to actually dislike Marie and in the number “I Don’t like This Dame” Ms.Heidi Blickenstaff’s Cleo brought the house down with her feelings, all the while politely acknowledging Marie’s doubts about Tony and Rosabella. Of course, Ms. Blickenstaff brought down the house with happy frequency. Cleo is the classic “second lead,” the one that the hero and heroine rely on to let them express thoughts that would otherwise be monologues and who points out destinies that might not be so easily seen. In life this is usually called “a best friend” and Ms. Blickenstaff made Cleo a supremely marvelous and credible pal to Rosabella… and who doesn’t love a buddy who pulls out a belly laugh with the same facility as she can generate cheers?
A perfect match for Cleo was Herman, the young ranch hand who “…likes ev’rybody.” Mr. Jay Armstrong Johnson played Herman as a truly sweet and amusing man who can never imagine the worst about anyone: If someone plays a trick on Herman, well; it makes them happy and hurt him none. Mr. Johnson carried this off with a real innocence so that even though Herman may be laid back and naïve, he was never an imbecile. Together with Messrs. Ryan Bauer-Walsh, Ward Billeisen and Arlo Hill, Mr. Johnson performed the wistful “Standing on the Corner” creating one of the most delightfully memorable moments of the show.
Mr. Kevin Vortmann was highly praiseworthy as the Doctor – a sincere medical man with a surprisingly fine sense of humanity as we discover in the superb “Love and Kindness” and the warming “Song of a Summer Night.”
It would be wrong not to mention other brief but vital contributions to THE MOST HAPPY FELLA: Mr. Wayne Prentlow as the Postman and Messrs. Zachary James, Bradley Dean and Brian Cali as Giuseppe, Pasquale and Ciccio who truly gloried in “Abbondanza” and kept right on going.
The rest of the cast was just plain delightful whether singing and dancing up a storm or lulling us along with a quiet ensemble piece.

If the company and material did a lot for the success of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA then Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s efforts were just as significant. Using the respectful concert adaptation by Mr. Bill Rosenfeld, Mr. Nicholaw made a rather lengthy show feel as if it ended all too soon. It is a tribute to him that the combined second and third acts of the show moved along as effectively and smartly as the first. Not only was the pacing well done, but even the smaller roles seemed to fill out and add to the vitality onstage. His staging of the dances was just as commendable, creating a “Big D” number that really packed a punch . Yet Mr. Nicholaw excelled at the smaller intimate moments too – from the already mentioned “My Heart is So Full of You” showstopper to heartbreaking moments between Rosabella and Tony that generated audible sobs from the audience.
Alas, not all the directorial decisions were perfect. While I actually liked the idea of Marie’s reconciling with the fact of Tony’s and Rosabella’s being together in the final scene of the show, I thought Mr. Nicholaw’s staging messed up the relationships between Tony, Marie and Rosabella and removed the purpose of Cleo and Herman’s number “I Made A Fist”:

· If Tony was not shown as lame anymore, why did Marie’s keeping hold of his cane (which he hates using) prevent him from going after Rosabella and triggering the final outburst?
· Once Marie and Tony resolved their issue, he never went offstage to get Rosabella as a man determined to keep his wife ought to. So what was all the fuss with that cane in the first place?
· Tony and Marie remaining onstage distracted from Cleo and Herman celebrating Herman’s willingness to fight for Cleo (a moment clearly intended to let Tony go offstage to get Rosabella back as well as ease the overall tension before Tony and Rosbella have their final quiet moment). So Cleo and Herman now just seem to be in the way and their number looks badly placed.
· After all this, Rosabella walked back onstage as if she was wondering where everyone was and Tony did not have the physical chance to show how he was going to go and bring her back.

With everything else so wonderful, this was just too bad and too late in the performance to be ignored; on the other hand there is nothing I could say to criticize the glorious sound of the augmented (38 pieces!) Encores! Orchestra under the musical direction of Mr. Rob Berman and using Mr. Don Walker’s original orchestrations. The only disappointment I’d have there would be if the company did not get back together to at least record this extraordinary music.

Like all of Encores! Musicals in Concert, there may be a full – in this case fuller – orchestra onstage, but Mr. John Lee Beatty cleverly set the remaining part of the stage with enough suggestions of place to keep anyone from ever missing full scenery. He was helped in this by Mr. Ken Billington’s very evocative lighting.
Naturally the cast’s clothing also set the location and Costume Designer Gregg Barnes went to town on the farm, defining the actors most convincingly and attractively.
Sound Designer Scott Lehrer clearly knew how to keep everyone sounding their best, but it was when Mr. Shuler Hensley made the best use of the amplification to add impact to his songs that I began to really appreciate what miking can do in a theater.

What with the narrow stage and all the sets, props and people, I can only express admiration at how Production Stage Manager Ms. Karen Moore and her crew always keep things running so smoothly and so well.

I am just sorry that the run of THE MOST HAPPY FELLA is over now. Would I see it again?

Happily, and repeatedly.

Still, there is something about these limited runs that make them very special: I feel mighty grateful when Encores! gives some of the lesser works a well-deserved chance to shine, but even more so when FRANK LOESSER works are shown.

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

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REVIEW: Encores! Concert Revival of LITTLE ME

On whom the Belle told…
A review of Encores! Concert Revival of

LITTLE ME
little me poster

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.

Little Me 1And 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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Guest Review of Encores! Concert Revival of FIORELLO!

Ballots over Broadway.

A review of Encore’s! Concert Revival of FIORELLO! at New York City Center

February 2, 2013

FIORELLO! is a show about politics, righteous indignation, ambition and love. It’s focus is the making of the dynamic and legendary Mayor of New York City Fiorello H. LaGuardia: nicknamed the “Little Flower.” The many eventful chapters in LaGuardia’s highly interesting public life are an embarrassment of riches for any writer to tackle and authors Jerome Weidman and George Abbot limit themselves to relating Fiorello’s life during the ‘teens and ‘twenties, covering his progress from a socially conscious and ambitious Manhattan lawyer to congressman and war hero, and eventually his rise to Mayor of the now corrupt and depression stricken City of New York. While Fiorello moves forward, the audience has the chance to look at both the hero and his relationship with the people around him.

Essential in telling LaGuardia’s story is a musical score that goes a long way towards fleshing out the personalities and situations involved in FIORELLO. Beautifully presented by the Encores! Orchestra as directed by Mr. Rob Berman, the songs and music by Composer Jerry Bock and Lyricist Sheldon Harnick are spirited and vivid musical guides through backroom politics, strikes, the First World War, the Jazz Age and the corruption of Mayor Jimmy Walker’s administration. Politics may be a dirty game but Messrs. Bock and Harnick also make it a wonderfully tuneful one with such treats like “Politics and Poker” and “Little Tin Box.” Outside of governmental affairs we are treated to a goodly measure of well honed songs ranging from the comic (“Marie’s Law”) to the tender (“Till Tomorrow”).

As far as the cast is concerned the gravel voiced Mr. Shuler Hensley practically walks off with the show in the part of Ben Marino. His resignation as being Republican Leader in a strongly Democratic district and his surprise at LaGuardia’s congressional victory delight the audience Even if Marino is a political flunky, Mr. Hensley makes sure he is no slouch.
Aiding and abetting Mr. Marino are the other hacks of the evening who also earn a goodly share of appreciation. Messrs. Justin Barnette, Rob Gallagher, Kevin Ligon, Steve Routman, Nathaniel Stampley and Kevin Vortmann are always marvelously present for plot machinations – both political and musical.

Adding his share of administrative flavor to the evening was former Congressional Representative Barney Frank in a one-time surprise walk on as a Senator who advises LaGuardia on his first day in Congress. Rep. Frank played his moment gamely and deserved his ovation, but seemed less self-assured as a stage Senator than he did as a real-life Congressman.

Keeping the lights on in LaGuardia’s law office are the young bright eyed gofer Niel – played with amusing “omigosh” appeal by Mr. Andrew Somanosky – and Morris, the loyal drudge who has seen it all and will be the first to tell you so. Such a character might easily become the office kvetch, but the excellent Mr. Adam Heller imbues Morris with a good-natured tolerance and feeling of quiet pride in his boss that makes him both sympathetic and likable.

More importantly is Marie, the loyal secretary, go-between and driving force in LaGuardia’s legal and political careers. Ms. Erin Dilly is ideal in the role, showing a young woman with integrity and gumption, who would go far anywhere – if she just wasn’t so stuck on her boss.

The other woman in Fiorello’s life is Thea, the Ladies Garment Workers strike leader. I must give real praise to Ms. Kate Baldwin in her ability to take Thea from friendship with Fiorello to begrudging engagement and finally to romance. She manages so much with little time and one beautiful song: “When did I fall In Love?”
A friend to both Thea and Marie is Dora who rises out of the sweatshop to find love and eventually life in a penthouse. Dora is admirably enacted by Ms. Jenn Gambatese with a winning combination of cuteness and determination that is exhibited as its best in her number “I Love a Cop.” It is very understandable why her former tormentor of strike days, the Police Officer Floyd McDuff – played with amusing bluffness by the Mr. Jeremy Bobb – finds himself in love with her.

Ms. Emily Skinner plays a brief though very memorable role as the singing star Mitzi Travers. Her rendition of “Gentleman Jimmy” was a rousing salute to the New York of the roaring ‘twenties.

The other members of the cast deserve applause as well, expertly populating the scenes and musical numbers with immigrants, shopgirls, soldiers, citizens, etc…

What about the Little Flower himself?

Fiorello H. LaGuardia is not an easy role to play and requires the actor to carry off a thespian juggling act. The title character exhibits pushiness, brashness and impatience and does not even get a major share of the songs: yet he must come across as a likeable, admirable opportunist whose presence permeates all the action even when he is not onstage. I have heard from spectators that Mr. Danny Rutigliano gave a wonderful performance as Fiorello in other performances, but sadly the night I saw him, Mr. Rutigliano did not seem up to the demands of the part. Much as I truly wanted to enjoy Mr. Rutigliano’s performance as LaGuardia, all I could see was a very eager man who wanted to be liked but who did not seem to be enjoying himself very much. Perhaps it was fatigue or an off night, but this Little Flower tended to wilt: the eager reformer being eclipsed by a nebbishy noodge. As a result of the play FIORELLO! itself weakened and exhibited flaws that a stronger, more confident performance might have hidden.

To be fair I would not put all the blame on Mr. Rutigliano for FIORELLO’s shortcomings. While many of the scenes and numbers in FIORELLO are relished by the audience, Director Gary Griffin and Mr. John Weidman who did the concert adaptation did not seem to fully grasp the difficulties that adapting a musical into a concert format would involve. Primarily the problem of adapting scenes that would have probably been performed “in one” – that is in front of a curtain, to keep the story moving while a set is changed – in a fully staged production. In the evening’s presentation, they chose to present such moments as fully as any other scene forcing pauses in the action to allow the next part to be put in place. I thought this hurt the momentum of the show dreadfully, distracting the audience and hindering actors who could not fully capitalize on the energy of the previous scene. Then too, though it might be churlish to say this about a Pulitzer Prize winning play, but the Messrs. Jerome Weidman and George Abbot seemed to rely more on the legend of LaGuardia in this show than work to show what a marvel he really was. Without a strong lead actor to drive the show, FIORELLO shows itself to be one of those shows where we have to take the word of the main character and his associates on how great he has been rather than seeing how great he is. That is not the best story telling.

Still whatever story was present, it was excellently set by Mr. John Lee Beatty’s building block scenery and Mr. Jess Goldstein’s simple costumes that commendably reflected the time frame rather than attempt to recreate the ‘teens and ‘twenties. Their look was well illuminated by Mr. Ken Billington’s lighting.

I must also praise Mr. Alex Sanchez’s delightfully varied choreography and Mr. Scott Lehrer’s sound designs that came across as carefully balanced and natural even in the top balcony where the audience is directly facing the main speaker.

For all my reservations concerning this remounting of FIORELLO! – which had been the first concert Encores! ever performed in 1994, – the Encores! series provides once more the vital reminder that even if a show has its imperfections, it doesn’t have to be flawless to make for an evening of memorable theater.

(My thanks to my sister Cronshi for the wonderful “thespian juggling act” description. It is too good to be used without some expression of appreciation.)

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

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Guest Review of Encores! Concert Revival of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

The Merchant of Venus.

A review of Encore’s! Concert Revival of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES
At New York City Center

by Moshe Bloxenheim, Guest Reviewer

May 13, 2012

Let’s face it: “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” may not have the historical significance of “Show Boat” or “Oklahoma” but this past weekend, Encores! proved most delightfully that a show that promises good songs, brilliant comedy and an all out hilarious time well deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation.

Based upon Ms. Anita Loos’ classic novel of the same name, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” introduces the audience to the deliciously motivated Lorelei Lee; a young lady from Little Rock, Arkansas who departs the Prohibition America of 1924 for Paris. Gus Esmond Jr., Lorelei’s wealthy young button manufacturing Sugar Daddy, is reluctantly sending her to Europe for “education,” though it is soon all too obvious that France has more to learn from Lorelei than France will ever teach Lorelei. As Lorelie’s travel companion and occasional accomplice Dorothy Shaw is Paris bound too. Dorothy will never have Lorelei’s mercantile charms but she knows how to enjoy her own brand of romance. On board the “Ile de France” the girls encounter a wealth (both figuratively and literally) of attentive men ranging from the attractively athletic US Olympic team to the wandering Sir Francis Beekman – husband of the tiara selling dragon, Lady Phyllis Beekman. Also making the journey is the dipsomaniacal society matron Mrs. Ella Spofford whose son Henry, Lorelei feels, would make a perfect match for Dorothy. Lorelei’s own love (and financial) life is troubled by Gus Esmond Jr.’s possible discovery of some events in her past and the presence of the determinedly clean living zipper magnate Josephus Gage.
All this and Paris too…

I must say that the gentlemen of the cast all did the one thing necessary to ensure the success of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes:” They never acknowledged that they are the joke. Being the unequal participants in the battle against sex, all men WANT to be used for Lorelei’s convenience. And from Gus Esmond, Jr. down to the cabin attendants on the “Ile De France” there was an earnestness of urge over intellect that assured the success of every plot twist and joke that came along.

Gus Esmond, Jr. the standard young businessman of the period: a man who wants to maintain the success of his father’s button business. Mr. Clarke Thorell gives Gus a sort of Wall Street “Ghee Whiz” persona that can make us believe that, for all her demands, Gus really loves Lorelei and would throw over the fastener fortune for her (against her better judgment). Better still Mr. Thorell never lets Gus exhibit an inkling that his fortune might have some influence on Lorelei’s ardent passion for him. Even when Gus utters such a belief, it is more the insult of a jealous lover than a man who fears a gold digger.

Gus’ primary reason for jealousy is his discovery of Lorelei wearing the first Paris dress to use a ZIPPER! A zipper manufactured by his father’s competitor Josephus Gage to be precise. Josephus is a gleefully prime example of the unnervingly healthy, athletic exponent of exercise and proper diet and Mr. Stephen R. Buntrock cheerfully lets the whole world know what a moving experience really can be. As far as Mr. Buntrock is concerned, Lorelei can get Josephus under her spell, but it a supremely wholesome hex.

Mr. Aaron Lazar makes Henry Spofford start out as a rather uptight, main line stick of a young man – the sort who usually interferes with romance – but the more Lorelei forces him and Dorothy together, the more he relaxes and wins everybody over, becoming the fellow that a girl would happily move to Philadelphia for.

On the other hand, when Mr. Simon Jones concludes as he began: having a lot of fun playing Sir Francis Beekman as a the eternally routed roué who will try to sneak in as good a time as he can have, when his formidable wife isn’t watching. Sir Francis would be putty in the hands of any girl so his scenes around Lorelei are entertainingly inevitable.

Also predictable in the best way possible are the father and son duo of Monsieur’s Robert and Louis Lemanteur, detectives hired by Lady Beekman to pursue Lorelei. In the persons of Messrs. Brennan Brown and Steven Boyer, the Lemanteurs are genuine stage Frenchman of the sort who are here less to move the story forward than to remind us that everyone is in France. They may be crude caricatures of the amorous “Oooh La-La” mode but they are enjoyable, fondly drawn parodies.

Another duo that is part of the Paris scene is the song and dance team of Mr. Philip Atmore and Mr. Jared Grimes who join Ms. Megan Sikora (as the ever rehearsing dancer Gloria Stark) in the show stopping number “Mamie is Mimi.” Messrs. Atmore and Grimes are billed under their own names and with their talents, certainly have no need to be onstage in any other guise.

Other notable males are the willing athletes of the 1924 U.S. Olympic Team. Led by Mr. Luke Hawkins, as “Frank,or the Olympic Team” and Mr. Eric Bourne as “George of the Olympic Team,” along with their teammates, these eye catching men may work hard to keep their amateur status, but they are pros delivering some wonderful dances and backing up the ladies on the “Ile de France” to the hilt.

If the men cannot see their status as prisoners of war in the Battle of the Sexes that is “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the women are all eager combatants and the general who rules the field is clearly Ms. Megan Hilty as Lorelei Lee. Ms. Hilty does not so much steal the show as slip it happily onto herself like one of Lorelei’s diamond bracelets or a luxurious mink coat. She shows us a young lady who is not so much confident of her charms as she is unconscious that it could be any other way. Lorelei accepts it as natural that the best favor she can do for a man is to accept anything that he can offer her – especially something valuable. Such a character could easily seem greedy and venal, but Ms. Hilty understands that for Lorelie there is a generosity in receiving as well. Her pleasure in receiving gifts of bonds and jewelry is both that of a child getting a birthday present and of a benefactor who loves to see the thrill men get when they give her something. Additionally, while Lorelei can often seem childish and naïve, there is clearly a formidable brain ticking away in this young lady’s head, and Ms. Megan Hilty is brilliantly hilarious as someone who vaguely knows that Europe is somewhere near France yet can convince an unwilling businessman than she understands his business better than he does. And while keeping in this superbly comic character Ms. Hilty performs her musical numbers with unforgettable panache, truly stopping the show when she delivered the Broadway standard “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Here is truly one of the great Lorelei Lees.

Though Ms. Hilty may be the unqualified star of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” Ms. Rachel York earns much laughter and applause for her part in the proceedings. As fellow good time girl and travel companion Dorothy Shaw, Ms. York is darned good company for both Lorelei and us. Dorothy views Lorelei as we do: she is an audience member who is fascinated and amused by her friend, even smiling at Lorelei’s obvious disapproval of her own admittedly unprofitable tendencies in love. Then when Dorothy does fall in love, Ms. York makes it a believable process allowing us to see a girl who is first amused, then intrigued and finally smitten.

Mrs. Ella Spofford, the mother of Henry, is a dithery matron who can’t understand why her son won’t let her have a little drink. Ms. Deborah Rush knows how to keep Ella funny and likable as the lady who just wants to enjoy herself – even if she tends to fall into the bottle when doing so – and Ms. Rush keeps us amused even with Ella’s sillier moments.
Mrs. Spofford’s opposite is Lady Phyllis Beekman, a lady of imposing proportions and demeanor. The excellent Ms. Sandra Shipley knows that she is playing a cartoon of a gorgon and never lets us down as chief villainess, whether she is keeping an eye on her constantly wandering husband or continually demanding proper payment for the diamond tiara that Lorelei was born to wear.

Ms. Megan Sikora plays another one of the archetypes of the 1920’s, the constantly working showgirl who enjoys her time with the boys. Gloria Stark aspires to the comforts of a sugar daddy, but is all too often practicing her dance routines for an impending show. Happily when she has her chance to perform numbers like “The Practice Scherzo” and “Mamie is Mimi” Ms. Sikora lets us see that she well and truly deserves her time on stage.

The rest of the cast are all up to the same standard, joining gleefully in the comedy and tunefully in the music whether we are in New York, shipboard or in Paris. They are a pleasure to watch and deserve fulsome praise for their part in the success of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

In the original musical Ms. Loos and Mr. Joseph Field had written a romp that parodies sex appeal yet even now has a surprising and rather refreshing innocence to it. In adapting this show to the concert stage Mr. David Ives clearly has understood that even if “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is called a “Book Musical” the authors had intended that such a thing was never meant to get in the way of out and out entertainment. Instead of worrying overly much about plot development and motivation, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” occasionally lets a number take over the stage while the storyline takes a breather and we are all the better for it. Especially when being treated to the music of Mr. Jule Styne and the lyrics of Mr. Leo Robin who provide a truly great score consisting of songs like the uproarious confessional “I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock,” the insanely diverting “It’s Delightful Down in Chile” and the absurdly essential “Button up with Esmond.” Music Director Rob Berman leading the Encores! Orchestra deliver a polished sound that makes it all sound fresh and alive using Mr. Don Walkers original orchestrations to give us the feeling that we are listening the sound of 1948.

Mr. Randy Skinner’s eye catching choreography is just fun, moving things forward when it has to or deliberately recollecting a time when a chorus was there to set an atmosphere or simply show off the available talent.

Like everything else, Mr. John Lee Beatty’s minimal scenery, effectively lit by Mr. Peter Kaczorowski, and Mr. David C. Woolard’s costuming never try to directly evoke the 1920’s, but rather how the 1920’s looked to those were remembering them in the late 1940’s. Mr. Woolard’s attire for Dorothy as the chic flapper alone would have deserved high praise but his celebration of Lorelei’s ripely voluptuous charms clearly assisted Ms. Megan Hilty in creating her unforgettable characterization.

For the most part Mr. Scott Lehrer’s sound design was good, but there were occasional lapses of clarity for the singers. Indeed, I thought that part of the problem with the least successful song; “Keep Cool with Coolidge” was an inaudibility of lyrics that left the audience rather puzzled.

There is an old saying that “it isn’t only what you do but how you do it” and Director John Rando certainly makes “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” do IT! Blessed with a great cast, good material and a solid production, Mr. Rando makes sure that even when story is standing still, the show MOVES. He clearly knows that comedy must be performed earnestly and that absolutely nothing on stage should give a hint that this is farce. And Mr. Rando wisely allows everyone a chance to shine, knowing that this makes Ms. Hilty’s success as the star even more impressive.

As with every Encores! production, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was a limited run that has already sadly ended. But between the excellent reviews, the ecstatic audiences and the demand for tickets, I would not be the least surprised to learn of this production being moved to another venue for a more extended run and I can only say that I should be delighted for the chance to enjoy it again and would recommend it to everyone I can.

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

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For more info on Elli -- The King of Broadway www.thekingofbroadway.com
Facebook | Twitter | IMdB | Actors Access

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