Monday, February 18, 2019

Call Me Madam: Turn Up the Brio

Jason Gotay and Carmen Cusack in Call Me Madam. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

When Irving Berlin’s musicals entered the realm of political comedy, he and his collaborators tended to keep the mood light; Face the Music (1932), Louisiana Purchase (1940) and Call Me Madam (1950) are more on the order of spoofs than satires. All three boast delightful scores, so it isn’t surprising that Encores! has produced all three – and, fortunately for us, released cast recordings of them. Its current season began the weekend before last with a revival of its 1995 revival of Call Me Madam, marking only the second time the series has remounted a show. Typically, Encores! has met the musical and choreographic demands of the material. Under the expert musical direction of Rob Berman, a veteran of more than thirty of these productions, the orchestra plays exuberantly and the vocal performances are generally as satisfying as comfort food prepared with a loving hand. That’s equally true of the dance numbers, staged adroitly by Denis Jones, who makes the reduced performing space of the City Center stage (which the cast has to share with the musicians) feel like the expanse space of a large Broadway house. Yet the show, particularly in the first act, is a little lackluster.

Part of the problem is the too-static staging by Casey Hushion. The other part is the casting of Carmen Cusack as Sally Adams, the Washington “hostess with the mostes’” appointed by her friend President Truman to be ambassador to the tiny European country of Lichtenburg. (Berlin and the veteran book writers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, were inspired here by real-life events – Truman gave the job of ambassador to Luxembourg to celebrity D.C. party giver Perle Mesta.) Cusack, the star of Steve Martin and Edie Brickell’s 2016 musical Bright Star, is a good actress with a fine voice and undeniable skill at dramatizing a song. But Berlin wrote Sally’s numbers for Ethel Merman – who also played it in the 1953 movie version – and Cusack isn’t a belter, so you can feel her straining on “The Hostess with the Mostes’ on the Ball” and “Can You Use Any Money Today” and “Something to Dance About,” though she’s more at ease with the ballads, “Marrying for Love” and “The Best Thing for You.” And if she doesn’t have the right instrument for big, brassy melodies, she also lacks the personality. She makes a game try, but the role isn’t a good fit, as it has been for other women who have picked it up, like Tyne Daly in the 1995 Encores! production and Kim Criswell in the memorable, rambunctious 2004 Goodspeed edition. (How about Donna Murphy as Sally? Now there’s a delicious thought.)

Since Ben Davis doesn’t do much with the role of Sally’s love interest, Lichtenburg’s new prime minister – beyond singing it beautifully – the juvenile and ingénue end up stealing the focus of the evening. As Kenneth Gibson, Sally’s nerdy young secretary, and the sheltered Princess Maria, Jason Gotay and Lauren Worsham (Phoebe in A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder) make a charming pair of fumbling, starstruck lovers, and their duet, “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” is easily the first-act high point. “The Ocarina,” the major dance number in act one, should be another, but though it’s pleasant to watch, Jones hasn’t gone far enough with it. Berlin wrote it as a clever parody of all the suffocating high-culture international dance that flooded Hollywood movies in the forties (and later TV variety shows in the fifties), none of which ever looked authentic but all of which were supposed to be good for us. Jones may have worried that a twenty-first-century audience would find it culturally offensive and therefore reined it in. Pity.

Act two is livelier than act one. Cusack rises to the occasion when she and Gotay perform the irresistible “You’re Just in Love,” one of three counterpoint numbers written by Berlin. (The others are “Play a Simple Melody” from his second Broadway show, Watch Your Step [1914], and “Empty Pockets Full of Love” from his last, the obscure Mr. President [1962], which also had a book by Lindsay and Crouse.) And as the trio of Washington politicians, Adam Heller, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Brad Oscar show up to sing “They Like Ike,” the sly soft-shoe number that predicts Eisenhower’s victory over Harry Truman in the 1952 presidential election. This vaudevillian ditty operates like “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” in Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (written two years earlier), and like that duet it’s surefire. One wishes there were more for these three gentlemen to do.

Berlin devotee that I am, I always appreciate the attention Encores! pays to his shows that have fallen by the wayside – a descriptor that pretty much applies to all his stage work except Annie Get Your Gun. These days you’re more likely to see stage versions of his movies: both White Christmas and Holiday Inn have been turned into plays. I was lucky enough to see Face the Music at City Center (it’s one of the best productions they’ve ever done) and though I missed both Louisiana Purchase and the Tyne Daly Call Me Madam, I listen to the recordings frequently. Perhaps one of these years they’ll turn their attention to his Depression-era revue As Thousands Cheer – which Laurence Maslon was canny enough to include in the Library of America two-volume collection of American musicals – or to Miss Liberty, the 1949 show he wrote between Annie Get Your Gun and Call Me Madam. What a score it has! I was reminded of one of its loveliest ballads, “Paris Wakes Up and Smiles,” during the “Lichtenburg” number in Call Me Madam. Both appear in obligatory chorus slots that are usually just filler. Leave it to Irving Berlin to fill them with soaring melodies.

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 Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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