'Call Me Madam': Theater Review

Stephanie Berger
Carmen Cusack and cast in 'Call Me Madam'
Enjoyable enough, but the hostess doesn't entirely have the mostest.
2/10/2019

Carmen Cusack, Tony-nominated for 'Bright Star,' leads this Encores! staging of the Irving Berlin musical that previously scored triumphs for Ethel Merman and Tyne Daly.

You can't begrudge Encores! for celebrating the 75th anniversary of its home base, City Center, by bringing back one of its biggest successes. Call Me Madam was the first entry of the company's second season back in 1995, and a lot was riding on it. Their first season had been critically well-received but unprofitable, and a hit was needed. The best way to have a hit is to get a star, and they got one in Tyne Daly, who scored a triumph in the lead role originally played by Ethel Merman in the 1950 Broadway production. It wasn't the first time Daly had proved she could make a role originated by Merman her own, having won a Tony as Rose in a 1989 Broadway revival of Gypsy

It would be terrific to report that the series' new production was equally invigorating. Sadly, Carmen Cusack, who was Tony-nominated for her Broadway debut in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star, doesn’t quite have the larger-than-life presence necessary to lift this flimsy star vehicle. She does, however, have a gorgeous voice and charm to spare, and these assets, along with Irving Berlin's terrific score and some deftly amusing supporting performances, make this Call Me Madam enjoyable if not spectacular.

Political satire doesn’t tend to age well (I doubt comedies about Donald Trump will be popular in 50 years), and such is the case with this musical featuring a terrific score by Berlin. The book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse (Life With Father, The Sound of Music) was inspired by real-life society matron Perle Mesta, who despite not having any diplomatic experience was appointed ambassador to Luxembourg by Harry Truman. The show's central character Sally Adams (Cusack), is a twangy, rich Oklahoman who becomes ambassador to the fictional Lichtenburg, where the principal product is cheese. Not that the citizens get to enjoy any of it, since it all has to be sold abroad to keep the country financially afloat.

The silly storyline mainly involves two budding romances: one between Sally and handsome government official Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), the other between Sally's chief aide (Jason Gotay, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and Lichtenberg's naïve young princess (Lauren Worsham, A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder). Much of the then-topical humor doesn't exactly prove hilarious today, from the running gag about the critics lambasting Margaret Truman's singing to the political fortunes of Dwight Eisenhower as pondered by three senators (Adam Heller, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Brad Oscar) in the jaunty musical number "They Like Ike."

But for every joke that falls flat, there's a terrific song, including the charming "It's a Lovely Day Today," the beautiful ballad "Marrying for Love," the toe-tapping "The Hostess with the Mostes' On the Ball," and the show's unqualified masterpiece of counterpoint, "You're Just in Love," the last guaranteed to send you out of the theater on a high. The numbers are beautifully sung and gorgeously rendered by the large orchestra using Don Walker's original orchestrations. There are even two musicians performing on ocarinas, which in the show's conceit is the national instrument of Lichtenburg.  

Although Cusack lacks the desired brassiness for her character, she's nonetheless highly engaging throughout, and the supporting players are terrific. Gotay and Worsham are adorable as the fumbling young lovers, Davis' seductive baritone is swoon-worthy and Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane score big laughs in their brief appearance as a daffy duke and duchess.

Casey Hushion's fast-paced staging compensates for the weaker spots of the book, here thankfully streamlined by Bill Russell and Charles Repole. Denis Jones' choreography, spoofing everything from ballroom dancing to old-world European folk dances, is consistently inventive, and Jen Caprio's costumes, particularly a number of colorful outfits for Cusack, provide ample visual panache.  

Venue: New York City Center, New York
Cast: Carmen Cusack, Ben Davis, Jason Gotay, Darrell Hammond, Adam Heller, Carol Kane, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Brad Oscar, Randy Rainbow, Michael Benjamin Washington, Lauren Worsham
Music and lyrics: Irving Berlin
Book: Howard Lindsay, Russel Crouse
Director: Casey Hushion
Music director: Rob Berman
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Jen Caprio
Lighting designer: Jason Lyons
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Presented by New York City Center Encores!