Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam - Bright, Bouncy, and at times creaky

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Given the state of things in the world today, one would think the time would be prefect for a revival of the 1950 Broadway musical, Call Me Madam. The show currently being given a such treatment as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. With a score by Irving Berlin, a book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse, and starring Ethel Merman, this gentle political satire originally ending up running for a total of 644 performances.

In Washington, DC, transplanted Texan Mrs. Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack), is the reigning socialite on the political circuit. Her parties are "must attend" events for everybody who's anybody, and where those of competing political stripes can talk, mingle and relax. Even if a problem does occur at one of her gatherings, Sally is always ready with a quick remark to defuse any potential danger.

Carmen Cusaack and Jason Gotay in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sally is also about to broaden her horizons, having just been appointed U.S. Ambassador to the tiny country of Lichtenburg. A somewhat poor nation that's "too small to be a city and too big to be a town", Lichtenburg is also a place on the cusp of change. The younger generations wanting to move into the modern era, with the older ones generally preferring to follow more traditional values - including dressing in the more time-honored Lichtenburg apparel.

It quickly becomes apparent that Sally, who has been instructed to improve relations between the two countries, is ill-prepared for the restrictions of diplomatic protocol and other international niceties. At times having a bull in a china shop mentality, her preferred method of action is to simply throw money at whatever problem she faces. A solution a visiting U.S. Congressional Committee readily agrees with, but one which Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), a Lichtenburg official, is adamantly opposed. A self-described holder of both liberal and conservative values, Cosmo wants to get his country get back on its feet economically without any foreign aid - or the strings that come with it.

Cosmo and Sally's continual disagreement on this point soon threatens the internal stability in Lichtenburg; there being those in Cosmo's government all too eager to accept whatever the U.S. has to offer. While Sally tries to find a way to make everybody happy, and also keep her budding romance with Cosmo on an even keel, her young and idealistic assistant Kenneth (Jason Gotay) further complicates matters between the two countries by falling in love with the Princess of Lichtenburg (Lauren Worsham). Such fraternization between commoners and royalty being strictly forbidden.

Carmen Cusack and Ben Davis in Call Me Madam. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Offering a classic fish out of water story, as well as a spoof of foreign relations, and peppered with numerous political asides - many of which had the audience applauding - Call Me Madam is a slight and winsome tale, which invokes a sense of nostalgia for a seemingly simpler time. However for the show to work properly in this modern era, the property needs a top-notch team to bring the story to life. This particular production unfortunately, suffers from numerous missteps. Many of which are the responsibility of director Casey Hushion, who seems unable to decide how to best showcase the material. The various scenes often coming across as listless and disjointed, rather than anything that feels like a continually flowing narrative. One also can't help but wonder why some of the people of Lichtenburg talk with an accent and others do not.

Another problem is that Cusack is somewhat miscast as Sally. While she does a great job in the role, and has a wonderful singing voice, her somewhat laid-back approach to the character allows the weak points in the production to become more noticeable. As opposed to Merman or someone else of that ilk, who would allow their personality to really take over the part and thus draw the audience's attention to them, rather than what was going on elsewhere on stage.

That's not to say there isn't a lot to like in the show. The entire cast projects an infectious enthusiasm in their performances and the Berlin score is a joy to hear. Musical highlights includes the enjoyable "Mrs. Sally Adams"; the rather sweet "It's A Lovely Day Today", as sung by Gotay and Worsham, the latter who loses her Lichtenberg accent at points; the whimsical "You're Just In Love"; and Cusack's very fine rendition of "The Hostess with the Mostes' On the Ball". There's also the deliciously comical "The Ocarina", the national dance of Lichtenberg, which is hilariously presented from start to finish.

The Call Me Madam Ensemble. Photo by Stephanie Berger

Davis makes an excellent foil for Cusack. His Cosmo being a firm, upright sort, with just the right amount of a European cultured feel. He's also never met anyone quite like Sally and is completely unsure how to deal with her - at least at first. It also helps tremendously that the two actors have a strong onstage chemistry and project a smoldering tension between their characters. They also bring off their musical duets together quite well.

Gotay and Worsham are fine as Kenneth and Princess Maria, though neither character is particularly well-developed. Completely stealing the show in what is basically a glorified cameo are Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane as Maria's parents, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Lichtenberg. Their appearance also helping to tie up at least one major plotline.

Also deserving of mention are Adam Heller, Jason Gotay and Brad Oscar, playing three members of Congress who, like all good lawmakers, are quickly able to adapt to whatever changing situations that come up. Such as responding to Cosmo's refusal of U.S. aid by doubling their original offer. They are also wonderful in "They Like Ike", a not-so-subtle musical reminder of how one party's political power can suddenly come to an end.

Denis Jones' choreography is enjoyable, as is Rob Berman's musical direction. Berman also conducting the Encores! Orchestra, which gives its usual impeccable performance here.

Call Me Madam, a reference to Sally Adams' title, Madame Ambassador, offers a lot of enjoyment, and more than one political truism which still resonates in today's world. However all too often, this Encores! offering chugs along when it should soar and meanders when it should be tightly focused. It's not so much a bad production as a missed opportunity.

Featuring: Carmen Cusack (Sally Adams), Christopher Gurr (Henry Gibson/Ensemble), Adam Heller (Congressman Wilkins), Jason Gotay (Kenneth Gibson), Brad Oscar (Senator Gallagher), Stanley Wayne Mathis (Senator Brockbank), Michael Benjamin Washington (Pemberton Maxwell), Ben Davis (Cosmo Constantine), Randy Rainbow (Sebastian), Lauren Worsham (Princess Maria), Darrell Hammond (Grand Duke Otto), Carol Kane (Grand Duchess Sophie).

Florrie Bagel (Ensemble)Daniel Berryman (Ensemble)Taeler Elyse Cyrus (Ensemble)Leslie Flesner (Ensemble)Ta’Nika Gibson (Ensemble)Leah Horowitz (Ensemble)Javier Ignacio (Ensemble)Max Kumangai (Ensemble)Matt Loehr (Ensemble)Brandt Martinez (Ensemble)Skye Mattox (Ensemble), Timothy McDevitt (Ensemble)Harris Milgrim (Ensemble)Bethany Moore (Ensemble)Mary Page Nance (Ensemble), Robert Roby (Ensemble)Kathy Voytko (Ensemble), Sumi Yu (Ensemble), Ricardo A. Zayas (Ensemble).

Call Me Madam
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Scenic Designer: Allen Moyer
Costume Designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting Designer: Jason Lyons
Sound Designer: Scott Lehrer
Music Coordinator: Seymour Red Press
Original Orchestrations: Don Walker
Concert Adaptation: Bill Russell and Charles Repole
Production Stage Manager: Karen Moore
Casting: Binder Casting, Jay Binder CSA, Mark Brandon, Justin Bohon

Featuring: The Encores! Orchestra
Choreographed by: Denis Jones
Music Director: Rob Berman
Directed by Casey Hushion

Presented by Encores! at New York City Center
131 West 55th Street
Tickets: 212-581-1212 or
Running Time: Two Hours, 25 Minutes, with one intermission
Closes: Sunday, February 10, 2019

Call Me Madam is presented through special arrangement with R&H Theatricals

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