Monday, March 17, 2014

Musical Vaudeville: Encores! Production of Little Me

Rachel York and Christian Borle in Little Me (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Encores! at New York’s City Center opened its three-musical season at the beginning of last month with a spirited, uproarious revival of the 1962 Little Me, directed by John Rando, whose work for the series has included some of my personal favorites (On the Town, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Irving Berlin’s Face the Music). The source material for Little Me is a book by Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame) that takes the form of a fictional memoir by a scandalous dame named Belle Poitrine – poitrine is French for chest – who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s pretty much an overlong one-joke comedy, the joke being the obvious discrepancy between the innocent version of events Belle is offering and the truth that glares at you between the lines. I got tired of the novel and of Belle after about a hundred pages and put it down. But the book of the musical, by Neil Simon, though it’s overstuffed – act one is ninety minutes long – is consistently funny. Simon divided the character of Belle between an aging millionairess (impersonated in Rando’s production by the feisty Judy Kaye) and her indomitable younger self (Rachel York, belting happily and effortlessly carrying off an ingénue role she ought to be about a decade and a half too old for). Belle goes to jail for murder, resurfaces as a stage personality on the basis of her notoriety – note that Little Me predated Chicago by thirteen years – entertains the troops in the Great War and stars in silent movies, among other adventures.

More importantly, Simon fashioned the musical as a vaudeville built around the outsize talents of Sid Caesar, who invented TV sketch comedy in the early 1950s and who, in my opinion, may have been matched but has never been surpassed. (As a young writer, Simon was a member of the celebrated team that created the scripts for Caesar’s Your Show of Shows and his subsequent TV appearances, along with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Woody Allen and others. Simon based his best play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, on that formative experience.) The running gag of Little Me is that Caesar, or whoever inherits his part – here it’s the exuberantly talented Christian Borle, last scene as Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher – plays almost all the men in Belle’s young life. They include Noble Eggelston, the rich boy whose snobby mother (Harriet Harris) forbids him to marry beneath him; the tight-fisted landlord Amos Pinchley (based on any number of characters played by Lionel Barrymore in the movies), whose hard heart she softens; a French chanteur named Val Du Val; a near-sighted farm boy, Fred Poitrine, whom she marries before he gets killed in the Great War; Otto Schnitzler, a movie director meant as a parody of that whip-cracking tyrant Erich von Stroheim; and an Eastern European prince who tries to save his bankrupt country by gambling with what’s left of the treasury. The only one of Belle’s men not written for Caesar to play is George Musgrove, who, like her, comes from the wrong side of the tracks (“Drifters’ Row”) and pursues her, on and off, for years. (He also fathers her child, whom the script conveniently forgets about for more than an hour. Since the musical is structured as a series of sketches, that turns out to be a good joke rather than a structural problem.) Here George is played by Tony Yazbeck, the personable singer-dancer who played Gabey, the romantic lead in On the Town, in both Rando’s Encores! revival and the even better one he staged at Barrington Stage last July.

Robert Creighton and Christian Borle (Photo by Joan Marcus)
I didn’t know Little Me at all before Encores! produced it, so I was caught off guard not only by the freshness of the book (I don’t care for most of Neil Simon’s output) but also by the Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh score. Two of the songs were moderate takeaway hits at the time – the ballad “Real Live Girl” (sung by the naïf Fred and reprised by wounded doughboys in anticipation of Belle’s arrival) and the swinging seduction song “I’ve Got Your Number” (sung by George when he and Belle reconnect as adults) – and they’re both good, especially “Real Live Girl.” (Choreographer Joshua Bergasse – an alum, like Borle, of the TV show Smash – comes up with a delightfully absurd dance routine for the casualties, who include a soldier with a bandaged leg and crutches who manages a couple of kicks and another who carries an intravenous stand around with him.) But all of Coleman’s music is tuneful and playful, and Leigh’s lyrics are a revelation to anyone who associates her mostly with the Mary Martin musical Peter Pan. I confess I didn’t know, until I read her bio in the playbill, that she did her best work away from Broadway, penning the words for standards like “The Best Is Yet to Come,” “Witchcraft” and “How Little We Know.” That is, her best work aside from Little Me. Here’s a small sample. From “Deep Down Inside” (wherein Belle persuades Pinchley that there’s a generous fellow underneath his miserly skin):

No man is a true pariah
Deep down inside
Deep down inside
Deep down in the old spare tire
No man is a true Uriah
Heep down inside.

From “Goodbye” (wherein Prince Cherney, having lost his country’s money at the casinos, decides his only recourse is to commit suicide):

Goodbye, Yulnick
Goodbye, Yisha
Goodbye, Sam
I’m sure gonna miss ya
Goodbye, Melnick
Goodbye, Myron
Pardon my expirin’
Goodbye, country
It’s been fun
You know I hate
To rule and run
But I must get
Some dying done
So everyone goodbye!

And my favorite, from the title song, an ingenious duet between Belle, looking forward, and her older counterpart, looking back, in which the character reasserts her conviction to win Noble over his mother’s objections:

Who will earn that bounty?
Who’ll pursue that quarry?
Like a North West Mountie
But built like Mata Hari
Who’ll get Lochinvar e-

The last time I saw a musical in which so many of the lyrics made me laugh out loud was The Drowsy Chaperone.

Rachel York, David Garrison & Judy Kaye (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Rando, Bergasse, music director Rob Berman and the tip-top cast skate deftly over and through the Borscht Belt humor. Borle’s performance times seven (he shows up again at the end as Noble’s college-age son) is laced with prickly comic ideas, like having Val Du Val sing like a male Edith Piaf and playing Fred Poitrine as Eddie Cantor might have done it (but without the Yiddish dialect). In a tour de force scene at the top of act two he stands in for both Noble and Val, dashing offstage as one and back on as the other, plus or minus a mustache. I loved the “Rich Kids’ Rag,” performed by the dance ensemble with noses in the air, executing jack-in-the-box jetées. The ridiculous names of Belle’s movie vehicles appear as projections on the backdrop (the Encores! scenic consultant, as always, is John Lee Beatty) during the “Poor Little Hollywood Star” number. In addition to that deadpan expert Harriet Harris, the treasure-trove supporting cast features Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as Bernie and Bennie Buchsbaum, the producers who keep popping up in Belle’s life to jump-start her show-business career (their duet is “Be a Performer”), David Garrison as Patrick Dennis, whom Belle has hired to write her memoir, and the versatile Robert Creighton, who outpaces Borle by playing eight character parts.

By chance, Sid Caesar died, at ninety-one, three days after Encores! closed Little Me, and I paid a personal tribute to him by ordering the original cast album. He’s marvelous on it (especially on “Goodbye”), and I have no doubt that Christian Borle, who came across as quite modest in the post-show talkback, would be the first to agree that there will never be another Caesar. But Borle and his cohorts should be proud of their work here, and of resurrecting a musical that never quite caught the popular imagination and richly deserved to.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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