Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Hey, Look Me Over! - It's What's Not There That's The Problem

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

For the last quarter of a century, the appeal of the Encores! series at New York City Center has been the opportunity for audiences to see little known, or long forgotten musicals return to the stage. Thus allowing these properties to be seen and appreciated by a new generation of theatre goers. In keeping with that tradition, kicking off the organization's 25th anniversary season is Hey, Look Me Over! Conceived by Jack Viertel, the company's artistic director, Hey, Look Me Over! presents a collection of musical numbers from over half a dozen different shows. None of these works having graced the Encores! stage as full productions. As least not yet.

While this might have sounded like a great idea on paper, the actual execution ends up missing the mark. Lacking a proper narrative to fully set the stage as it were, the songs showcased here often end up feeling like little more than a loose collection of threads which fail to come together into a cohesive whole.

This problem of perspective is visible right off the bat with first musical offerings of the evening. They coming from the 1960 Broadway show Wildcat. This is extremely unfortunate as performers Britney Coleman, and particularly Carolee Carmello are excellent in their rendition of the Wildcat number which Encores! has chosen to use as its title for the presentation. But with only the barest of background information provided, one feels no emotional connection to the various pieces as they unfold.

The issue becomes even more evident later on when actress Vanessa Williams comes out to sing two numbers from the musical Jamaica. Williams performs the songs wonderfully, but there's no back-story offered for either piece. Or for the particular character who's supposed to be singing them. As a result, the numbers feel more conducive to a concert act, rather than an Encores! performance.

To their credit, the Encores! creative team recognized this problem when the show was in the planning stages, and came up with the idea of having Bob Martin reprise his role of "Man in Chair" from the 2006 Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone. Martin playing an introverted musical theatre aficionado providing various background information on that show's cast and creators, as well as dropping in numerous bits of trivia. Along with his own personal take on the different numbers 

                                        Bob Martin as Man in Chair
                                           in Hey, Look Me Over!
                                            (photo by Joan Marcus)

If Martin's character had fully applied the Chaperone process to Hey, Look Me Over!, things would probably have worked out better. However, all too often he just announces the name of each musical we're about to hear, as well when it originally opened and perhaps, how long it ran. None of which is enough to get one really invested in the musical selection that follows. Even the final number of the evening, the rousing "Give My Regards to Broadway" from George M!, a song which should have brought the house down, doesn't work nearly as well as it should, for this reason. That said, the dancing in "Give My Regards" is excellent, thanks to the effort put forth by Clyde Alves in the George M. Cohan role, and the members of the Encores! ensemble. Also wonderfully effective here is the excellent choreographic work of Denis Jones. Jones' efforts also bearing fruit in the "Independence Day Hora" number from Milk and Honey.

One place where Martin’s presence does work to a show’s favor is All American. One of two shows presented strongly enough to make you really want to take a second look at the material. It also helps that, despite its now somewhat quaint set up, the subject matter of All American remains quite timely. It dealing with America being the "great melting pot". This, by the way, becomes a point touched on time and again during Hey, Look Me Over! Especially in an added bonus after the curtain calls, where the entire company performs a number from Irving Berlin's Miss Liberty.

The second show that really stood out during Hey, Look Me Over! - and which was wisely given the task of closing out the first act – was Mack and Mabel, which featured a score by Jerry Herman. Herman the only composer to be represented by two separate shows here – the other being Milk and Honey. The Mack and Mabel offerings including a wonderful blend of song, slapstick and silent movie era comedy; all led by Douglas Sills who offered a powerhouse performance with the number "Movies Were Movies".

Another element that does not really work in Hey, Look Me Over! is the playing of several of the overtures from the featured shows. They feeling more like add-on pieces than anything else. Encores! also commits the sin of playing the overture from the 1961 musical Subways Are For Sleeping and then not presenting any other songs from that show, or even offering any information as to what that musical was about. They could have at least mentioned David Merrick's publicity stunt in that regard - surely Man in Chair would have known about that!

The individual performances are superlative down the line. In addition to those mentioned above, Judy Kuhn and Reed Birney are wonderful together in the heartstring pulling "Once Upon a Time", from All American. Bebe Neurwirth is nicely sarcastic in Noel Coward’s Sail Away. A production which reminds one of a lightweight Anything Goes. Mark Kudisch delivers solidly with his work in numbers from both Milk and Honey and Greenwillow. As does Clifton Duncan with "Never Will I Marry"; a fantastic solo number from the latter work. It's a shame we don't get a chance to understand enough about the character Duncan plays here; as it would have made the song resonate that much more with the audience.

The Encores! orchestra, under the able baton of Rob Berman, is, as always, a real treat to the ear. The melodies and refrains sounding alternatively lush, strong, and at times, quite stirring. It’s also wonderful to hear these songs as performed by a full orchestra.

Hey, Look Me Over! is a pleasant enough experience, but ultimately one found wanting. The show suffering the same problem as Prince of Broadway, a musical which opened on The Great White Way earlier this season. It too had a bountiful crop of material from which to choose, but ended up displaying them in a way that only rarely explained what actually about - and why we should care to experience them.

Featuring: Clyde Alves, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Britney Coleman, Clifton Duncan, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Bob Martin, Tam Mutu, Bebe Neuwirth, Nancy Opal, Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha, Vanessa Williams, Alex Aquilino, Carleigh Bettiol, Rachel Coloff, Kerry Conte, Rick Faugno, Eloise Kropp, Matt Loehr, Michael X. Martin, Michael Mendez, Justin Prescott, Wayne Pretlow, Lindsay Roberts, Steve Routman, Sarah Jane Shanks, Jaquez André Sims, Diana Vaden, Jessica Wockenfuss.

New York City Center
Encores! at 25

Hey, Look Me Over!
Conceived by Jack Viertel

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Designer: Paul Miller
Sound Designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Production Stage Manager: Adam John Hunter
Music Coordinator: Seymour Press
Casting by Binder Casting / Jay Binders, CSA, Justin Bohon
Choreography by Denis Jones
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by Marc Bruni

Presented at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Running Time: 2 hours, 35 minutes, with one intermission
Closed: February 11, 2018

No comments: