Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Me and My Girl - A Musical From Yesterday Comes Roaring To Life

 Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In this world of message musicals and important themes, it’s nice to know that every so often a vehicle comes along whose only purpose is to offer a good time. The 1937 tuner Me and My Girl, which was recently resurrected for an engagement as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center, is such a work.

With a storyline paper thin; musical numbers that have often have nothing to do with advancing the plot; dusty jokes which were old when the musical was first new; and songs inserted where a few lines of dialogue will do; this production was, from the first moment to the last, nothing less than sheer perfection. 

In 1930s England, the place to be during the summer, for anybody who is anybody, is Hareford Hall. A massive manor house with grounds that include tennis courts, a golf course, and a cricket field. Though with the recent death of the Earl of Hareford, the race is on to find a male heir. One who can continue the same sensible and conservative traditions that have been part of the Hareford family for generations.

It's not long before the heir is indeed found. However, the gentlemen in question, one Bill Snibson (Christian Borle), the product of a brief marriage between the late Earl and a woman from a somewhat lower class, turns out to be a good-natured cockney fellow from the Lambeth district of London. A man perfectly at home in the pubs and dance halls, but completely out of his depth when it comes to high society.

While the Hareford elites are somewhat perturbed, to say the least, Maria (Harriet Harris), the Duchess of Dene and the late Earl’s sister, is determined the family legacy will continue; and sets out to mold Bill into a "proper" English gentlemen. Although Bill quickly comes to enjoy his new surroundings, there is one major stumbling block to the Duchess' plans. That being Bill's undying love for his "girl" Sally Smith (Laura Michelle Kelly), from whom he refuses to be parted. As the Duchess envisions Bill eventually marrying someone suitable to his new station in life, she wants Sally gone as soon as possible. So too does Lady Jaqueline Carstone (Lisa O'Hare), the closest thing this show has to a villain, who sees a life of financial security were she to marry Bill. This to the consternation of Gerald Bolingbroke (Mark Evans), who loves Jaqueline and would marry her in an instant, were he not drowning in debt.

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, and not wanting to hurt Bill's chances for a new life, Sally tries to point out to Bill how unsuited the two now are for each other, and makes plans to return to Lambeth alone.

Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly in Me and My Girl at Encores! at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus 

With book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, the show first became a smash in London in 1937; repeating its success on Broadway two years later. In 1984, the shows book was heavily revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent, to become a hit all over again on both sides of the Atlantic. Watching the musical play out on the City Center stage, it’s easy to see why. The story is sweet and light, and the tunes by Noel Gay are completely infectious. Most being nothing more than a chance for the cast to break into song and dance. As is the case with the absolutely delightful “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”, which opens act two; and the famous “Lambeth Walk”, which started a dance craze when first introduced in England

That’s not to say the musical doesn’t have some poignant moments as well. Among them, the wistfully mournful “Leaning on a Lamp-Post”, sung by Bill when he thinks he’s lost Sally, and Sally’s solo number in a similar vein, "Once You Lose Your Heart". Also present in the score are comedic numbers for just about every one of the main and supporting cast. Where else for example, can you find a song all about the family solicitor? Don Stephenson doing a great job in that particular role.

Yes, there are issues of class consciousness present, but it’s all played almost totally for laughs, with the audience rooting for Bill and Sally from start to finish. There’s even an implied reference to one Henry Higgins tossed in. Along with a scene that shows Borle to be channeling Gene Kelly more than a bit.

The entire cast is excellent. Borle is prefect in the role of Bill. He movements so limber, they remind one of a young Dick Van Dyke. In a refreshing twist for shows of this type, Bill never becomes so seduced by his new life as to try to forget Sally in the arms of someone else. His comic number with O’Hare (“You Would if You Could”), a nice testament to that effect.

Kelly makes a great Sally. A salt-of-the-earth type, yet lacking Bill’s “come hell or high water” attitude, she’s never able to feel as if she belongs among the Harefords or their ilk. Chuck Cooper is great fun as Sir John Tremayne, the co-executor of the Hareford estate, who quickly becomes Bill’s ally. Cooper also perfectly delivering one of the funniest lines in the show (having to do with tea and a steamroller). Harris is great as the no-nonsense Duchess, who refuses to let the Hareford tradition die. Nor do the Hareford ancestors, as Bill learns after a few drinks.

The musical direction under the baton of Rob Berman is excellent. The show so involving, one forgets at times the orchestra is on stage throughout. Also essential to the musical running on all cylinders is the exquisite direction and choreographic work of Warren Carlyle. The various numbers coming off so well, it looks like the cast rehearsed for months beforehand. Best of all, this incarnation of the show never once feels dated or out-of-touch. Everything registering as immediate and alive. Also deserving of mention are the costumes by Emilio Sosa, which are all very well done. 

Message musicals certainly have an important place in the theatrical pantheon. But at the same time, it’s a real joy to see a show where the only objective is a simple, unadulterated fun. Welcome back, Me and My Girl, you have been sorely missed. Broadway revival anyone?

Featuring: Lisa O'Hare (Lady Jaqueline Carstone), Mark Evans (The Hon. Gerald Bolingbroke), Simon Jones (Lord Battersby), Suzanne Douglas (Lady Battersby), Don Stephenson (Douglas Herbert Parchester), John Horton (Sir Jasper Tring), Harriet Harris (Maria, Duchess of Dene), Chuck Cooper (Sir John Tremayne), Bill Buell (Charles Hethersett, The Butler), Christian Borle (Bill Snibson), Lara Michelle Kelly (Sally Smith), Kevin Worley (Pub Pianist/Ensemble), Sam Bolen (Footman/Ensemble), David Scott Purdy (Barman/Ensemble), Jessica Wockenfuss (Mrs. Worthington-Worthington/ensemble), Christine DiGallonardo (Lady Diss/Ensemble), Lizzie Klemperer (Lady Brighton/Ensemble), Price Waldman (Bob Barking/Ensemble), Florrie Bagel (Mrs. Brown/Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Constable/Ensemble), Maddy Apple, Alex Aquilino, Phillip Attmore, Abby Church, Jake Corcoran, Ta'nika Gibson, Jordan Grubb, Brittany Rose Hammond, Eloise Kropp, Mariah Reshea Reives, Chaz Wolcott (Ensemble)

Me and My Girl
Book and Lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber
Book Revised by Stephen Fry, with Contributions by Mike Ockrent
Music by Noel Gay

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Ken Billington
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert Adaptation: John Weidman
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Chris Walker
Production Stage Manager: Nancy Pittelman
Casting by: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, CSA, Justin Bohon
Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
121 West 55th Street
Running Time: Two Hours, Twenty Minutes, with one intermission
Closed: May 13, 2018

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