Thursday, February 6, 2014

Encores! Presents Little Me

If there is a heaven for theater-lovers, it must be something like a perpetual run of Encores! productions.  Fortunately, there is a bit of heaven-on-earth, as anyone capable of heading to New York can regularly visit 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. 

A few years ago City Center was renovated to something approaching its former glory – creating the perfect space to realize every dream you ever had of seeing a Broadway musical.

The first show for the season is a winner – Little Me, with a book by Neil Simon (born 1927), music by Cy Coleman (1929-2004) and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh (1926-1983).  It is based on the novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of the Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television by Patrick Dennis (1921-1976).  Readers of this blog will well-remember Dennis as the author of the book and play Mame, a touchstone of personal development for many of our readers.

The original production of the show opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in 1962, and ran for 257 performances.  The musical was tailored to the talents of television comic Sid Caesar (born 1922), who starred in the television variety program Your Show of Shows, which was written, in part, by young Neil Simon. 

The Dennis novel is a camp classic – Belle Pointrine is a scheming chanteuse who uses and abuses men on her way to money, stardom and social standing.  When Simon set about adapting the material, he envisioned a vehicle for Caesar where he could play Belle’s multiple husbands and lovers.  In addition, he could send up America’s love for celebrities, and the entire genre of Horatio Alger success stories. 

Subsequent revivals of Little Me have changed Simon’s book, but Encores preserves the original in all its delirious glory.  Simon envisions the story as older Belle (played wonderfully by Judy Kaye) telling the story to Dennis himself (played by David Garrison).  The bulk of the play is an extended flashback with younger Belle (the luminous Rachel York) and the various men in her life, all played with gusto and brio by Christian Borle.

Drawing on his experience writing television variety shows, Simon scraps the ideal of a straightforward musical comedy and, instead, creates an extended revue.  This can only work if the material is in the hands of a gifted clown and shtick-meister, and, fortunately, this revival has that in spades with Christian Borle.  We here at The Jade Sphinx enjoyed him greatly as the embryonic Capt. Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher, but nothing prepared us for the unbridled comic invention and energetic tomfoolery on display here.  By turns reminiscent of such farceurs as disparate as Tim Curry, Buster Keaton and Dick Van Dyke, Borle is a powerhouse of comic invention.  His performance is a nonsensical tour-de-force.

Fortunately, he is matched by the beautiful and deeply funny Rachel York.  She gives lie to the common canard that women cease to be sexy when they are funny.  Her singing is terrific and her dancing and slapstick extremely accomplished.

Also worthy of note is the handsome Tony Yazbeck, who sings the show’s only memorable song, I’ve Got Your Number.  Yazbeck shows up only intermittently in the proceedings, but he leaves a strong impression.  More, please.  In addition, Harriet Harris delivers solid comic support, as do Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as brother impresarios.

The dancing is topnotch, with a group of talented and attractive dancers to move the story along and provide able support to the overall zaniness.

In the Encores extended history of wonderful productions, few have matched the sheer fun and manic invention of Little Me.  This is theatrical alchemy of a high order, and the gee-wizardry on display at City Center is a marvel to behold.  The crowd was delighted with this inventive bauble, and it was several hours before your correspondent could stop smiling.

Little Me plays today through Sunday – beg, borrow or steal a ticket.  It is not to be missed.

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