Any self-described “regular New Yorker … who happens to love musical theater more than life itself” (in the words of the cranky, anxious, lovable Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone) is likely to not only subscribe to City Center’s Encores! series (in which rarely seen musicals receive polished, concert-style productions each year) but also have passionate feelings about which shows have and have not received the Encores! treatment.
Programming an Encores! season has to be a difficult dance. Ideally, the shows should not be so well known and artistically sound that they merit full-scale Broadway revivals (i.e. The Pajama Game, Bye Bye Birdie, Follies, which have all been done by Encores!) but not so dated, dull or problematic that they cannot sustain an evening's entertainment (i.e. 70, Girls, 70, Irma la Douce, The New Yorkers, Music in the Air, all among the weakest Encores! productions I have caught). Hopelessly obsessed musical theater enthusiasts (such as myself) spend their free time devising lists of shows that they believe Encores! should present.
In response to its opinionated subscribers, and in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Encores! is launching its new season with Hey, Look Me Over!, an unusual and uneven tour of various musicals that Martin (returning to his Man in Chair persona) believes deserve a second look. These shows (mostly 1960s flops) include Wildcat, Jamaica, All American, Milk and Honey, Mack & Mabel, Greenwillow, Sail Away and George M!. The overture of Subways Are for Sleeping and the finale of Miss Liberty are also thrown in for good measure. While I can’t say I have seen full professional revivals of any of these shows, I have attended underwhelming, piano-only concert productions of Sail Away, Milk and Honey, Subways are for Sleeping and Wildcat, as well as a summer camp production of George M!.
Hey, Look Me Over! is not a concert but rather a two-and-a-half-hour super sampler of overtures and scenes (songs and dialogue, performed in costume, with some floating set pieces) from each of these musicals, with a large cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth, Vanessa Williams, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha, Marc Kudisch and Judy Kuhn. Joel Grey, the original star of George M!, also makes an unannounced, show-stopping cameo.
The resulting show is occasionally enjoyable, but more often than not, clunky and disorienting, with some great solos and duets followed by insipid dialogue and ensemble numbers. While a few of these shows may work as full Encores! productions, it is difficult to take them seriously on their own terms in this rushed and limited context. Allow me to go over each sequence very briefly.
Wildcat (a 1960 star vehicle for Lucille Ball with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Carolyn Leigh) began on a promising note with its dynamic overture. After an embarrassing opening number, Carmello was terrific and full of spirit in the duet “Hey, Look Me Over” alongside Britney Coleman.
All American (Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ not-so-successful 1962 follow-up to Bye Bye Birdie, with a less than funny book by Mel Brooks, starring Ray Bolger as a Polish engineering professor who lands a job teaching at a Midwest college and becomes an unlikely football hero) is best remembered today for the sentimental ballad “Once Upon a Time” (delivered here by Birney, who talks his way through the songs, and Kuhn) and “Physical Fitness” (omitted here, which featured a human pyramid of buff shirtless men). At one point, Martin cuts off Kuhn and asks her to skip ahead to “Once Upon a Time.”
Jamaica (a 1957 soft hit, originally starring Lena Horne, contrasting a romanticized island life with dreams of escaping to Manhattan, with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Yip Harburg) did not actually receive an introduction from Martin. Instead, Williams simply materialized, looking and sounding great, and delivered two nightclub-style numbers, with male backup dancers is tow.
Milk and Honey (Jerry Herman’s 1961 debut musical, about American tourists visiting Israel during its early days) featured Kuhn and Kudisch (employing his booming voice, in a role originated by Robert Weede) performing the operatic and earnest “Shalom,” followed by a Hora ensemble dance sequence and the march-like title song.
Act one ended on a strong note with Mack & Mabel (Herman’s 1974 flop about the tragic romance between silent movie producer Mack Sennett and his young star Mabel Normand, which really is one of Herman’s finest scores). Sills, who has played Mack professionally, did terrific work alongside Socha, who was an innocent and vivacious Mabel. This was no doubt the finest sequence of the evening – and they did not even include the score’s finest songs (“I Won’t Send Roses,” “Time Heals Everything”). I, along with many others, have been waiting for years for Encores! to produce Mack & Mabel. I’ve heard murmurs that Herman is holding off, hoping that Mack & Mabel will instead receive a Broadway revival.
Greenwillow (Frank Loesser’s 1960 fable about a Brigadoon-like rural village, religious faith, and a family curse) has an idiosyncratic, challenging, and often beautiful score, and Clifton Duncan scored with the self-pitying ballad “Never Will I Marry,” but the show is so strange that it comes off as silly when seen in such a limited context.
Sail Away (Noel Coward’s 1961 musical comedy on a cruise liner, which starred Elaine Stritch as the ship’s social director, who is wooed by a younger man aboard) worked relatively well thanks to having Neuwirth, who brought comic personality and bite to the opening number “Come to Me” and the 11-o-clock number “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?.”
Like Jamaica, George M! (the hyperkinetic 1968 jukebox/bio musical of the all-American icon George M. Cohan) somehow materialized without being directly introduced or conjured by Martin. Here, as the cast sang and danced “Give My Regards to Broadway,” Grey suddenly entered and provided a triumphant finish to a haphazard show.
I fully understand the reason why Hey, Look Me Over! was designed to give short snapshots of what an Encores! production of each of these musicals might look and sound like, rather than as a concert with only songs. But the dialogue was unnecessary so long as Martin’s Man in Chair was on hand to provide context and commentary. But cutting the dialogue, the show could have been cut down in length and been able to add more songs and better songs. And let’s be honest, at any given Encores! show, the crowd comes to hear the score (as played by a full orchestra and sung by a Broadway caliber cast), not the dialogue.
A great gimmick to add to Hey, Look Me Over! would have been to allow the audience to vote for one of the featured musicals to receive a full Encores! production next season. If they could have promised that Grey would return for all of George M!, that surely would have won. Otherwise, I suspect the winner would have been Mack & Mabel. The very title received a smattering of applause when Martin introduced it. I’m willing to bet Encores! will get around to Mack & Mabel before the series reaches its 50th anniversary.