“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”


For its third and final entry of the year, Encores! lightened things up considerably with a delightful production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the 1949 classic that made Carol Channing a star (and whose 1953 film adaptation featured some gal named Marilyn). The musical, with a highly entertaining score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, is a 40s spoof of the 20s and is rather a flimsy affair. Everything will work out for our heroine Lorelei Lee and her pal Dorothy Shaw as they look for love. It just takes a meandering book (by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos) and a lot of specialty filler to get there. Said specialties are a delight, and it was wonderful to see a Golden Age musical staged with separate singing and dancing ensembles. This Encores production, nimbly directed by John Rando (with David Ives again doing the concert adaptation), was bright and breezy fun, but it also showed that the show as a whole doesn’t quite hold up so well.

Megan Hilty is a musical comedy dream. Her funny and sexy performance as Lorelei was captivating; whenever she was on stage you just had to look at her. Blessed with immense beauty and voice for days, Ms. Hilty took Lorelei’s two big solos (and their encores) and turned them into the evening’s high points (I still can see and hear her blissful delivery of the repeated line “The one who done me wrong” from “A Little Girl from Little Rock”). After the second encore of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” the audience went into sheer euphoria, with thunderous applause and cheering that only increased with intensity and volume on Ms. Hilty’s entrance in the next scene. Whenever Lorelei isn’t center stage, the show isn’t as infectious, but fortunately the stellar supporting cast more than made up for that.

Rachel York brought considerable joy and sass as Dorothy, leading various production numbers including “It’s High Time,” the racy “I Love What I’m Doing” and the Charleston fueled eleven o’clock number “Keeping Cool with Coolidge.” Aaron Lazar was virtually unrecognizable as her nerdy Philadelphia stuff-shirt love interest (who gets the show’s few romantic ballads). Stephen Buntrock appeared as a fitness-crazed entrepeneur whose number is an unlikely tribute to fiber. A triumvirate from the recent revival of Blithe Spirit, Simon Jones, Deborah Rush and Sandra Shipley (Rush’s understudy), were on hand as the older generation bringing some expected laughs.

Randy Skinner, who provided the spirited choreography for the Encores! No, No, Nanette four years ago, once again showed he is one of the best with clever, creative and crowd-pleasing work that showed form and integrity. Unlike recent Golden Age revivals on Broadway, Skinner’s work never reeks of the “everything-but-the-kitchen-sink” desperation that make up what is purported to be a showstopper. The dance highlight was a tap speciality to “Mamie is Mimi,” at the top of the second, originally conceived for Atkins and Coles (Atkins would go on to win the 1989 Tony for Best Choreography for Black & Blue, Coles won Best Featured Actor in a Musical for My One and Only in 1983). Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes brought down the house, along with Megan Sikora, in a tremendously dazzling display.

Don Walker’s orchestrations were fantastic, as were Trude Rittmann’s dance arrangements (lots of music that has never been recorded before). However, the evening really belonged to Hugh Martin. Mr. Martin, who basically created vocal arranging on Broadway, including the famous “Sing for Your Supper” trio in The Boys from Syracuse, created elaborate tight-knit vocal harmonies which were given impeccable musicianship by the singing ensemble.

With a book this flimsy, a Broadway transfer is not a particularly good idea and Encores! was the perfect venue. However, there is good news: a cast recording will be made. On the heels of PS Classics recording Merrily We Roll Along, and the Ghostlight’s live recording of Pipe Dream, this will mark the first time an entire Encores! season has been recorded since 1999.

The Bloggers Who Brunch

Well, gang, I’ve come to the end of what was a near perfect day. I make an attempt to never speak in superlatives, strange foible of mine, but oh well. Anyhow, I spent the majority of my day having new adventures (as Sarah would put it) with many new friends, most of whom I’ve encountered through starting my blog. Brunch commenced at Joe Allen’s, in what I would like to term our own version of the Algonquin Round Table (the password to join is “Marian. Marian Seldes.” But remember kids, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it…). There I met Esther, Steve, Doug, Joe and Eric; all intense theatrephiles who reside out of town, and all of whom I admired and enjoyed instantly. Of course the days adventures would be incomplete without Kari, Sarah and Jimmy. While others traipsed off to matinees of some sort or other, I went hung out with Sarah for the afternoon, which of course involved Angela Lansbury and Prettybelle. Then in another first, I actually rode the city bus.

Some of us attended that evening’s performance of Encores! No, No Nanette which is probably the strongest production I’ve seen at the City Center. I had but one qualm with the entire effervescent evening: that it was over. The plot is shaky thin, but that’s what one expects from the pre-Show Boat musical comedies. The music (Vincent Youmans, with lyrics from Otto Harbach & Irving Caesar) is infectious, the choreography (Randy Skinner), direction (Walter Bobbie) and costumes (Gregg Barnes) were top notch.

Usually, the Encores! crowd presents the original version of the show at hand, but in an unusual turn of events, there are two available editions of this musical: the 1925 original and the even more successful 1971 revisal (by Burt Shevelove) that played two years (and featured Ruby Keeler in a triumphant return to Broadway after 41 years). For this production, the powers that be decided on the ’71 version of the show, and I have to confess I’m glad they did.

In reviving the show in 1971, the country was into what is being referred to as its nostalgia craze. They were reissuing the Busby Berkeley musicals, other musicals about the 1920s and 30s were being written. Plus given the context of the virulent 60s, it made sense that entertainment leaned toward the more innocent escapism of these earlier years. Berkeley was even initially hired to direct, but wasn’t well enough to handle the task (Shevelove took over direction, Berkeley retained credit as “Production supervised by”). Donald Saddler provided the choreography. Ralphs Burns charted the orchestrations (the twin pianos provided chills, I kid you not) and Luther Henderson created the dance music.

In this evening’s performance, everything was spot on. It was a celebration of the 20s, without becoming overly campy and most refreshingly without the di rigeur self-referential satiric edges that have become so commonplace in the musical comedies of the present decade. What also was so refreshing was the audience’s complete surrender to the show. Sandy Duncan is 62 years old, which incidentally is the same age as Ruby Keeler when she did it, and from the way she carried her two big showstopping dance numbers, you’d think she was a youthful chorine. We need her back on Broadway, and how. A dancer’s longevity is rare; exceptions like Donna McKechnie and Chita Rivera come to mind instantaneously. I would place Duncan up in that area. Perhaps, since her signature musical role comes second hand, she might not be considered as such. But, my God, she delivers, high-kicking, fan-tailing and limber with endless energy and effortlessness. It felt like the auditorium was going to come tumbling down around us as she led the sure-fire “Take a Little One Step” that precedes the finale. Kudos to Beth Leavel, who knows how to bring the hilarious, can move like the breeze and can sock it to the rafters. (“The Where-Has-My-Hubby-Gone Blues” was a definitive showstopper. So was her next line). Did anyone else notice the subtle wink she gave the audience when the ovation continued to roar? Michael Berresse is a good dancer. Alright, you got me, an understatement of the grossest sort! He made Skinner’s moves look effortless – he’s certainly a throwback to the Gene Kelly mode, no? The ever-reliable and affable Charles Kimbrough was the philandering Bible-salesman who’s habit of keeping secret women (all of whom he gives money to keep happy, but it’s seriously strictly platonic) leads to most of the conflicts. Mara Davi, a soubrette who deserves her own vehicle, was even better than I had anticipated. Shonn Wiley (who, incidentally, I also saw at the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Crazy For You in 2000 opposite his now-wife Meredith Patterson) had the thankless role of Tom, her beloved, relishing in the role of the square-cut, straight-laced type. Oh yes, and the maid. There’s always the wise-cracking maid. Here it was played the lover extraordinaire of all things Broadway, Rosie O’Donnell, providing laughs with her world-weariness, a showdown with a vacuum cleaner and even a brief tap solo towards the end of the show. I am thrilled to have seen the show, mostly because of its place as an early 20s hit. A show that most would scoff at under normal circumstances, but is the epitome of the type of musical theatre that should be celebrated by Encores!.

The show is strong enough that it could seriously transfer to Broadway. The polish and caliber for a mere 8 days of rehearsal is beyond the call of duty in concert situations like this. I didn’t even catch anyone really glancing at their concert prompt-binders either. I’m not sure if anyone would be interested in a transfer, but believe me, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. And I’m sure most of those who saw it this weekend feel the same way. Post-show was spent at what is the post-City Center hangout, Seppi’s on 56th for some food and my usual white Russian. Not to mention “I Want to Be Happy” stuck in our heads. It should be criminal to have had as much fun as I did today. I look forward to the next time people come back into town.

The final line from Sandy Duncan’s bio: “And, contrary to urban myth, she does not have a glass eye.”

And now you know the rest of the story…