'Hey, Look Me Over!': Theater Review
Broadway talents including Vanessa Williams, Bebe Neuwirth, Judy Kuhn, Carolee Carmello, Reed Birney and Marc Kudisch appear in this Encores! 25th anniversary musical celebration.
You can't blame Encores! for wanting to throw itself an anniversary party; the organization certainly deserves to give itself a huge pat on the back after presenting terrific concert and semi-staged versions of musicals both familiar and neglected for all of its 25 years. And who better to host the celebration than Man in Chair, the wry musical theater devotee created so memorably by Bob Martin for the musical The Drowsy Chaperone? Serving as the emcee for this opening production of Encores' new season, Man in Chair, wearing his familiar beige cardigan sweater, proved so delightful upon reacquaintance it made you wish he were designated permanent host.
Martin's presence was particularly helpful since Hey, Look Me Over! proves to be a textbook example of a mixed bag. Artistic director Jack Viertel's concept was certainly a promising one. The show features numbers from nine musicals that have never been presented by Encores! — Wildcat, All-American, Jamaica, Milk and Honey, Mack & Mabel, Subways Are for Sleeping (its overture, at least), Greenwillow, Sail Away and George M! Since many Encores! productions already tend to be of problematic shows, this grab-bag feels somewhat like a minor-league version. Although to be sure, the talent taking part is strictly A-list, including such Broadway stalwarts as Bebe Neuwirth, Vanessa Williams, Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudisch, Carolee Carmello, Douglas Sills and Reed Birney, among others.
To start with the positives, there is the superb 30-piece orchestra conducted by Rob Berman, delivering lush orchestrations of the music of such composers as Cy Coleman, Charles Strouse, Harold Arlen, Jerry Herman (the only one represented by two shows), Frank Loesser, Noel Coward and George M. Cohan. There's just enough scenery and costumes to effectively convey the show's settings, and Denis Jones has contributed terrific choreography, including "Independence Day Hora" from Milk and Honey and a stirring tap number for "Give My Regards to Broadway."
Carmello, sporting the same fiery red hair as original star Lucille Ball, delivers a rousing rendition of "Hey, Look Me Over!" from Wildcat along with Britney Coleman. Birney and Kuhn duet on a touching version of the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from the little-known All-American, whose immigration-themed book was written by Mel Brooks. Williams emerges in full diva mode, pretending to take over the show from a flustered Martin to perform the bluesy "Ain't It the Truth" and calypso-flavored "Push Da Button" from Jamaica. And although the book scenes go on too long, Kudisch and Kuhn shine on "Shalom" from the Israel-set Milk and Honey. Sills proves perfect casting as the blustery Mack Sennett in "Movies Were Movies" from Mack and Mabel, with Alexandra Socha contributing a charming "Look What Happened to Mabel?"
Greenwillow, as Martin hints, is definitely lesser, and certainly atypical, Loesser, and the segment feels like it goes on forever. But it's redeemed by Clifton Duncan, stopping the show with his magnificent performance of the ballad "Never Will I Marry." Neuwirth proves in fine form with her arch delivery of Coward's classic comic number "Why do the Wrong People Travel," a feat made more impressive by the song's long association with Elaine Stritch.
The evening's worthy idea was not only to present musical numbers from the little-seen shows but also extended book scenes to set the context. The problem is, since it's safe to say that all but the most ardent musical theater buffs are probably unfamiliar with much of the material, the dramatic scenes feel scattered and confusing, more often tedious than enlightening. It perhaps would have been more effective simply to let Martin guide us through the show's plots in wittily succinct fashion.
The show ends on a high note with, what else, "Give My Regards to Broadway," featuring Clyde Alves as a top-tapping George M. Cohan. Don't rush out during the curtain call, because the encore packs a potent social message. It's another Berlin song, from Miss Liberty, titled "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor." As Martin points out, Berlin wrote the music but not the lyrics, which came from Emma Lazarus' poem "The New Colossus," engraved in the State of Liberty.
Another treat is the surprise appearance by an aged but forever young Broadway legend, reprising a role he originally played on Broadway a half-century ago. His exuberant star turn is an unalloyed delight.
Venue: New York City Center, New York
Conception: Jack Viertel
Cast: Clyde Alves, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Britney Coleman, Clifton Duncan, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Bob Martin, Tam Mutu, Bebe Neurwirth, Nancy Opel, Douglass Sills, Alexandra Socha, Vanessa Williams
Director: Marc Bruni
Set designer: Allen Moyer
Costume designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting designer: Paul Miller
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Choreographer: Denis Jones
Music director: Rob Berman
Presented by New York City Center Encores!