Monday, February 19, 2018

Hey, Look Me Over!: Also-Rans

Vanessa Williams and members of the ensemble in Hey, Look Me Over! at New York's City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Artistic director Jack Viertel’s concept for Hey, Look Me Over!, which opened the twenty-fifth anniversary season of Encores!, was to put together a revue of excerpts from shows that have never been revived in City Center’s beloved series. But to be honest, what you come away from the show with is a pretty good understanding of why you wouldn’t want to see a production of Wildcat (Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh, 1960) or Milk and Honey (Jerry Herman, 1961), Sail Away (Noël Coward, 1961) or, God help us, Greenwillow (Frank Loesser, 1960). I’d be more curious about checking out Jamaica (1957), which Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg wrote for Lena Horne, or All American (Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, 1962), which originally starred Ray Bolger, or Herman’s Mack and Mabel (1974), in which Robert Preston played silent-comedy king Mack Sennett and Bernadette Peters played his star and romantic partner Mabel Normand. I’d seen only one of the shows included in the compilation, George M! (1968), which the Goodspeed Opera House produced some years ago, a bio of George M. Cohan that isn’t remotely in the same class as the movie Yankee Doodle Dandy – though it must have been worth seeing on Broadway with Joel Grey. 

Hey, Look Me Over! was narrated by Bob Martin, assuming his amusing Man in the Chair persona from The Drowsy Chaperone. But it felt very long, especially in the Milk and Honey and Greenwillow sections, which were, respectively, suffocatingly sentimental and terminally twee. The first of these, which came early in Herman’s career (three years before Hello, Dolly!), is set in Israel, where a relatively young woman on a tour of Jewish widows from the States falls in love with another American who’s visiting his daughter and her Sabra husband on a farm outside Tel Aviv. (The male role was played on Broadway by former Metropolitan Opera star Robert Weede, the original Most Happy Fella.) The second, based on a B.J. Chute novel that I read when as a teenager, is a small-town fable rendered in a baffling patois that sounds like nonsense rhymes. Anthony Perkins was the star; Loesser did write him one terrific song, “Never Will I Marry,” which Barbra Streisand covered on one of her early LPs, and which Clifton Duncan performed soulfully at Encores!

The revue was peopled by a lot of talented musical-theatre perennials, some of them in fine voice (Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudish, Tam Mutu), many of them overacting zealously, as if they – or director Marc Bruni – thought they could only put over some of this second-rate material if they worked extra hard. By the time Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman had finished selling the title song (from Wildcat) at the top of the show  I was already worn out, and though the two numbers from Mack and Mabel, “Movies Were Movies” and “Look What Happened to Mabel,” which closed out act one, were cleverly (and fairly elaborately) staged, Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha, both of whom I’ve liked on other occasions, chewed so much scenery that I wound up turning my full attention to the chorus. It was a relief when Bebe Neuwirth showed up near the end to dispatch a couple of Elaine Stritch songs from Sail Away, “Come to Me” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” (with Mutu’s tender version of the title tune sandwiched in between): her ironic, tossed-off style was a tonic after  the strenuous exertions of most of her castmates. On the other hand, Vanessa Williams, standing in for Lena Horne, seemed, at least at the performance I saw, oddly restrained on “Ain’t It the Truth” and “Push De Button,” as if she couldn’t quite get into the spirit of the songs. (For those who collect show-music trivia: Arlen and Harburg originally wrote “Ain’t It the Truth” for Horne to perform in the joyous 1943 movie version of Cabin in the Sky and resurrected it a decade and a half later for Jamaica.)

Reed Birney, a fine actor who is not, however, a musical-theatre guy, took the Bolger part, a transplanted middle-European engineering prof at a Baptist college in the South, in three numbers from All American. I liked the first of these, “Melt Us,” set at Ellis Island, though Birney didn’t appear comfortable until, on the third one, he got to settle back with the always dependable Judy Kuhn for the show’s lovely take-away duet, “Once Upon a Time” (“A girl with moonlight in her eyes . . .“). Kuhn, a performer of instinctual generosity, managed to relax Birney completely, and the number was, for me, the high point of the show. For some reason Clyde Alves (Ozzie in the knockout Broadway revival of On the Town a few seasons ago) didn’t look at ease when he struck up “Give My Regards to Broadway” from George M!, but the moment he broke into the tap break he calmed right down.

The inclusion of All American was no doubt a political statement for the Trump era, as was the unbilled finale, Irving Berlin’s setting of Emma Lazarus’s “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Miss Liberty (1949), which the entire company sang with brio with Rob Berman conducting the Encores! orchestra behind them with his usual skill and panache. Ironically, Miss Liberty, which I discovered via the original cast album many years ago – it’s about a small-town newspaperman who goes to Paris to find the young woman who posed for the Statue of Liberty  – is one musical I’ve always hoped Encores! would get around to reviving. Better that than Greenwillow!

– 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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