Envy lucky Gothamites who can regularly visit New York’s City Center to view the Encores! series of musical revivals. Encores! is dedicated to restaging little-seen shows with top-notch casts and the finest orchestra performing on Broadway. The creative minds behind the series are Artistic Director Jack Viertel and Music Director Rob Berman, who have done a superb job of mounting these shows since 1994. Added sauce is the fact that City Center has recently been renovated to something like its former glory. In short, the best way to describe Encores! is that it is a distillation of every dream you ever had of seeing a Broadway musical, and really delivering on that promise. It is rare that I have a more enjoyable night at the theater.
As Viertel said last night in his brief pre-curtain remarks, the proof a good musical is that it works as an aphrodisiac. Surely few shows better fit that bill than 1949’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin, and adapted for the stage by Anita Loos from her own novel with an able assist from Joseph Fields.
Briefly, showgirls Dorothy Shaw (Rachel York) and Lorelei Lee (Megan Hilty) set sail on the Ile de France, leaving behind Lee’s fiancée, button-king Gus Esmond, Jr. (Clarke Thorell). Also on board are aging Lothario Sir Francis Beekman (Simon Jones), his wife, Lady Phyllis (Sandra Shipley) and Philadelphia millionairess Mrs. Ella Spofford (Deborah Rush) and her son, Henry (Aaron Lazar). Needless to say, there will be shipboard shenanigans, terrific songs and fleet-footed dancing, and comedy both high and low.
The original Broadway cast included Carol Channing as Lorelei Lee (and you probably remember Marilyn Monroe in film version), and while no one in the cast has that kind of star power, Hilty delivers a lusty, busty and deftly comedic performance. She labors perhaps too much under the ghost of Monroe – the original performance by Channing indicates that there is more than one way to play the part – but it is possible that audiences now would accept nothing less than Monroe-lite. For all the imitation, though, Hilty does manage to incorporate her own comic sensibilities to the role.
York, as Shaw, has less incandescent wattage than Hilty, but she does manage to do something different with the part. No mere Jane Russell knockoff, Shaw imbues her part with that hard-bitten cynicism associated with flappers. Shaw also has the best dance number in the show, bar none, I Love What I’m Doing, danced with a bevy of shirtless Olympians. These dancers, who cavort throughout the show in a variety of guises, carry much of the action on their muscular shoulders.
Kudos, too, to the indefatigable, peerless clown Simon Jones. His number, It’s Delightful Down in Chile, performed with Hilty, is a comic treat. Other songs include I’m Just a Little Girl from Little Rock (complete with three encores), the paean to Americana Homesick, and You Say You Care.
The orchestration of Styne’s score was another highlight of the evening, and the chorus provided a tuneful accompaniment to the action.
As would be the case with any revival of the show, much of it boils down to the performance of the signature number, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. This ditty is perhaps one of the greatest bits of comic poetry to be found in the Great American Songbook:
A kiss on the hand may be quite continental
But diamonds are a girl's best friend
A kiss may be grand... but it won't pay the rental on your humble flat
Or help you at the automat
Men grow cold as girls grow old
And we all lose our charms in the end
But square cut or pear shape these rocks don't lose their shape
Diamonds are a girl's best friend
Hilty delivers the number with oomph to spare, and I promise that you will leave the theater humming the number to yourself.
If there is any complaint with Gentlemen, it has nothing to do with the Encores! superlative revival. Rather, it is that one of the grace notes of classic Broadway musicals is a sweetness too often missing from contemporary life. This sweetness goes far in bringing satisfaction and even, if I may, a touch of the sublime. Gentlemen has wit and brass, but there is a touch of cynicism at its core that somehow makes it, for your correspondent, less than perfect.
Gentleman only runs from May 9th to the 13th. Tickets are available at: http://www.nycitycenter.org/tickets/productionnew.aspx?performancenumber=5973. You owe it to yourself to go.