Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Theater Review
Lorelei Lee lives again in "Smash" star Megan Hilty's inspired comic turn in this 1949 musical, based on Anita Loos' novel about a gold-digging flapper who knows how to work her assets
NEW YORK – While Megan Hilty’s character is still scheming to play Marilyn Monroe in the bio-musical at the center of NBC’s Smash, she’s wiggling her voluptuous way through one of the star’s most iconic screen roles with gusto in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Playing just seven performances as part of the annual Encores! series of semi-staged vintage musicals, John Rando’s sparkling production is sheer enjoyment, with some of the most exhilarating jazz vocal harmonies and time-traveling dance breaks to be found anywhere near Broadway. But Hilty’s bombshell is the prize.
The 1949 musical comedy is not quite top-tier material, despite its pedigree. The score by Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl) with lyrics by Leo Robin yielded a handful of gems, notably “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Bye, Bye Baby” and “I’m Just A Little Girl From Little Rock.” All are heard to great advantage here, with the superb 28-piece Encores! orchestra under the vigorous baton of music director Rob Berman. But the remaining numbers were either ditched or replaced for the somewhat de-musicalized 1953 Howard Hawks screen version, which starred Monroe as platinum-coiffed gold-digger Lorelei Lee and Jane Russell as her pal and trans-Atlantic “chaperone” Dorothy Shaw.
That means there are nuggets of song to be discovered for anyone whose prior knowledge of the show is exclusively via the movie. But the book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, is a little too lax about narrative, frequently neglecting plot momentum to detour into revue territory with Jazz Age nightclub interludes. That weakness is very much apparent in David Ives’ abridged concert version.
However, the show has an indisputable 40-carat jewel at its center, originated on Broadway in a star-making turn for Carol Channing. As incarnated here with creamy sensuality, Lorelei is a winking homage to Monroe, but also Hilty’s own savvy comic creation, her every grammatical gaffe and mangled pronoun uttered with seductive conviction.
When Loos wrote the hilarious 1925 novel, subtitled “The Illuminating Diary of a Professional Lady,” she captured a flapper-era archetype that has endured. But seldom has the balance of wily calculation, feigned innocence and authentic, irresistible charm been so bewitching. Hilty nails that package with marvelous, daffy aplomb, not to mention dynamite vocals that judiciously spice the cooing with an occasional vampy belt or growl.
Very few opportunistic fortune-hunters are such sweethearts. Or such smart cookies. As Lorelei counsels her millionaire-averse best friend, “You see, Dorothy, just because a gentleman has money it’s no reason he can’t be endured.” The statement doesn’t carry even a whiff of cynicism – just the frank pragmatism of what a girl’s gotta do.
Hilty’s grand gestures of studied sophistication amusingly suggest the lengths to which Lorelei has gone to disguise her Little Rock roots. But the subterfuge is based in worldly observation, not deceit: “Like a little lost lamb I roamed about/Till I came to New York and I found out/That the one you call your daddy ain’t your pa.”
In the relative straight-man role of Dorothy, Rachel York is every bit as terrific. She downs champagne cocktails and slings deadpan observations like a showgirl who has been around the block a few times but has plenty more circuits left in her.
Making her entrance hoisted aloft on the shoulders of two studly men, she launches into a funny celebration of inebriation, “It’s High Time,” before boarding the Ile de France, bound for Europe. Fans of the movie might miss Russell’s man-hungry “Anyone Here For Love?” But York winningly leers and struts among the Olympic athletic team while they work out to “I Love What I’m Doing,” passing out towels as they strip down to gym shorts for a final dance break. And for a production number that’s basically filler to stall until Lorelei finally gets her man, Dorothy’s “Keeping Cool With Coolidge” is a blast.
The men are all second bananas in the nonsensical story, but appealing enough. Aaron Lazar makes the strongest impression as the son of Philadelphia’s richest woman; he falls for Dorothy while struggling to keep his boozing mother (a droll Deborah Rush) off the sauce. And as Lorelei’s rival suitors, a button-empire heir and a fitness-fanatic zipper king, respectively, Clarke Thorell has a mellow crooner quality that feels true to the period, while Stephen R. Buntrock has fun with an unlikely hymn to the benefits of roughage. Simon Jones hits the right comic notes as Sir Francis Beekman, a dotty Brit and inveterate skirt-chaser whose gorgon of a wife (Sandra Shipley) has a tiara Lorelei craves. Brennan Brown and Steven Boyer score as a Clousseau-like father-and-son pair of French solicitors.
One of the standout musical numbers is a Paris nightclub act featuring virtuoso tap-dancing from rubber-limbed Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes, channeling the Nicholas Brothers, joined by an equally limber Megan Sikora. Throughout the performance, choreographer Randy Skinner’s zesty work once again shows his infectious love of old-style Broadway dancing, but that song, “Mamie is Mimi,” is his finest moment.
While it almost stopped the show on opening night, that was nothing compared to the endless applause that followed Hilty’s knowing take on “Diamonds.” It’s a tough act to tackle a Marilyn signature song whose visuals were pop-culturally repurposed by Madonna and still somehow make it new. But Hilty milks fresh laughs and crafty character insights out of the extended number, with its delicious built-in exits and encores. She left the packed house ecstatic.
Unlike the movie, the show sticks to Loos’ 1920s setting. But the original orchestrations by Don Walker and vocal arrangements by Hugh Martin – with their tight radio-influenced harmonies – evoke a toe-tapping, brassy big-band sound more redolent of the ‘40s. With Anything Goes now into its second year on Broadway, and newcomer Nice Work If You Can Get It posting tidy grosses, frothy musical nostalgia evidently is back in style. Should producers be eyeing this production as a possible transfer, Hilty is the non-negotiable component.
Venue: New York City Center, New York (runs through May 13)
Cast: Megan Hilty, Rachel York, Phillip Attmore, Steven Boyer, Brennan Brown, Stephen R. Buntrock, Jared Grimes, Simon Jones, Aaron Lazar, Deborah Rush, Sandra Shipley, Megan Sikora, Clarke Thorell
Director: John Rando
Music: Jule Styne
Lyrics: Leo Robin
Book: Anita Loos, Joseph Fields, adapted from the novel by Loos
Concert adaptation: David Ives
Set designer: John Lee Beatty
Costume designer: David C. Woolard
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Original orchestrations: Don Walker
Music director: Rob Berman
Choreographer: Randy Skinner
Presented by New York City Center Encores!