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If there’s a more infectiously joyous number in the history of musical theater than “The Lambeth Walk,” I’m hard-pressed to name it. The song is the unquestioned highlight of the vintage British musical Me and My Girl and it once again stops the show in the loving, if too short-lived, revival by New York City Center’s Encores! It’s no wonder the cast bound into the aisles while performing it, as if there was simply too much energy to be contained on a mere stage.
The show premiered in London in 1937 and ran for 1,646 performances, helped in no small part by a revolutionary BBC television broadcast of the production that aired in 1939. Originally featuring a score by Noel Gay, and book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, it was given a 1984 London revival in a revised version written by Stephen Fry (with contributions by director Mike Ockrent) and the interpolation of songs composed by Gay for other shows. Transferred to Broadway two years later, the musical ran for three years, its stars Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett both winning Tonys.
As is typical of its era, the show is pure fluff. The plot revolves around Bill Snibson (Christian Borle), a Lambeth Cockney discovered to be the 14th heir to the Earl of Hareford. Summoned to the late earl’s estate to assume his destiny as a nobleman, Bill runs into conflict with the aristocrats determined to remake him. But Bill will have none of it, especially since it involves ditching the equally common Sally (Laura Michelle Kelly, Finding Neverland), the love of his life. Hilarity, as they say, ensues.
Directed and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (After Midnight, Finian’s Rainbow), the show demonstrates Encores’ amazing ability to put together polished productions, featuring elaborate musical numbers, in just a few weeks. Besides “The Lambeth Walk,” there’s the wonderful second-act opener, “The Sun Has Got His Hat On,” featuring the entire ensemble in a rousing tap number that leaves you with a silly grin on your face. Gay’s score, which also includes the title song and the jaunty “Leaning on a Lamp-Post,” is almost ridiculously tuneful. These songs aren’t just ear worms, they burrow so deep into your brain that you’d need surgery to dislodge them. As usual, the music sounds glorious as performed by the Encores Orchestra under the musical direction of Rob Berman.
Borle, recently seen as Willy Wonka in the Broadway musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is an expert clown. He gets the opportunity to show off that talent in spades here, garnering guffaws with his exuberant physical shtick and sharp comic timing while displaying a perfect Cockney accent to boot. He’s also very lovable, an essential quality for his anarchic, Groucho Marx-like character. Kelly is equally endearing as the spunky Sally, displaying her gorgeous pipes on such songs as the touching ballad “Once You Lose Your Heart.”
The sublime supporting cast includes the priceless Harriet Harris as the intimidating Duchess of Dene; Chuck Cooper as Sir John Tremayne, the gentleman hopelessly in love with her; Mark Evans as Gerald, the handsome would-be aristocrat who lacks only money; and Lisa O’Hare as Jacqueline, who quickly ditches Gerald to pursue Bill for his newfound fortune. Stage veterans Simon Jones and Don Stephenson also make valuable contributions, especially the latter as a solicitor constantly and literally singing his own praises in one of the show’s many running gags.
As with his work in the current hit revival of Hello, Dolly!, Carlyle’s choreography proves consistently imaginative. Here, he makes particularly clever use of props ranging from cricket bats to spoons to lampposts.
Effectively streamlined by adapter John Weidman to two and a quarter hours, this Me and My Girl is careful not to wear out its welcome. And for every groanworthy gag, there’s an inspired one, such as the sly allusion to My Fair Lady that brought down the house. The show is a delight from start to finish, the only possible pitfall being that you may step into traffic while attempting to do the Lambeth Walk on your way home.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Christian Borle, Bill Buell, Chuck Cooper, Suzzanne Douglas, Mark Evans, Harriet Harris, John Horton, Simon Jones, Laura Michelle Kelly, Lisa O’Hare, Don Stephenson
Book & lyrics: L. Arthur Rose, Douglas Furber
Book revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent
Music: Noel Gay
Director & choreographer: Warren Carlyle
Music director: Rob Berman
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Ken Billington
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Concert adaptor: John Weidman
Presented by New York City Center Encores! at 25
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