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