BWW Reviews: Encores! Kicks the 'Improvements' Out of LITTLE ME
Celebrity memoirs penned by sexy starlets revealing the juicy details behind their rises to fame were all the rage during the late 1950's and early '60s, thanks to popular page-turners by the likes of Gypsy Rose Lee, Mary Astor and Zsa Zsa Gabor. But those literary gems weren't always solo efforts, as ghost writers toiled for money without glory and other scribes credited with phrases like "as told to" shared the title pages, with their names in much smaller print.
Comic novelist Patrick Dennis spoofed the genre in 1961 with Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of that Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis, author of Auntie Mame, which was more of a scrapbook with a narrative by a deluded and self-important, fabulously wealthy grande dame recalling her struggle as an incredibly shapely youth born into poverty scratching her way to the top by way of a series of relationships with powerful men.
The 1960s was a time when musicals were often based on books before they were developed into screenplays, so when hot young playwright Neil Simon, fresh off his initial Broadway success, Come Blow Your Horn, read Dennis' best-seller, he saw it as a musical vehicle for his old boss, Sid Caesar. The next year, Little Me opened at the Lunt-Fontanne, not so much as the story of Belle Poitrine's rise to obtain wealth, culture and social position in order to win her true love, but as a showcase for the popular television clown to portray seven of the men in her life; a crotchety old miser, a French nightclub star, a German film director, a noble rich kid, a nerdy doughboy, a European prince and a final surprise character.
In only their second Broadway outing as a team, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh concocted a sensational score, full of jazzy musical comedy brass matched with gutsy colloquial cleverness. Bob Fosse's Tony-winning dances included the now classic "Rich Kid's Rag" and a snakelike seduction routine for Swen Swenson's rendition of the score's most popular tune, "I've Got Your Number."
But while Little Me was well-received, it may have gotten lost a bit in a hot year for big musicals, competing for customers with hits like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Caesar admitted in his autobiography that he was undergoing trouble with alcohol at the time and the show closed in seven months, two weeks after he had to be replaced mid-performance by understudy, Mickey Deems.
Two Broadway revivals of Little Me have tried to create more empathy by building up the female lead, sapping the show of its satirical intent. Thankfully the Encores! concert revival ditches those "improvements" and sticks to Simon's original book, considered by many to be one of the funniest ever written for a Broadway musical.
If director John Rando's mounting is merely hilariously funny instead of an out-and-out laff-riot, the sparse production values and the limited rehearsal time allowed for such efforts should be taken into consideration. He certainly has a top shelf collection of comic actors delivering the goods.
You don't always expect an actor who wins acclaim playing a man dying of AIDS in Angels In America to be a great choice for a knockabout sketch comedy musical, but Christian Borle's uproarious comic turns in Spamalot and Peter and The Starcatcher certainly qualify him as a fine choice for taking on the leading man's seven roles. He's especially effective as an overachieving Ivy Leaguer majoring in medicine and law at Harvard and Yale ("I hope someday to become a legal doctor.") and as an innocent soldier receiving his first kiss ("What do you do with your teeth?") but adds his own wacky touches to parts obviously catering to Caesar's knack for exaggerated foreign accents.
As the social-climbing Belle, Rachel York delivers plenty of sex appeal and belty flashiness, playing up the character's obliviousness to the lustful way men react to her as she attempts to reinvent herself from a poverty-stricken youth to the kind of woman who would earn her true love's mother's approval.
Heading the supporting cast is the delightful Judy Kaye as the obscenely wealthy and questionably cultured present-day Belle, dictating her memoirs to Patrick Dennis (David Garrison feeding her straight lines with intelligent charm.) and Tony Yazbeck, who dances with sexy athletic grace as the only one of the leading lady's suitors not played by Borle. If Encores! ever decides to take on Legs Diamond, Yazbeck would be far better cast as the tough guy song and dance man than original star Peter Allen.
Robert Creighton is a classic second banana in his multiple roles and the duo of Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof lay on the Borscht Belt flavor as a pair of vaudeville agents. Harriet Harris rings out every laugh possible as the sneering and snobby mother who won't see her boy marry the low-born Belle. ("Our family goes back 400 years, to the earliest rich people.")
With a bit of polish to sharpen up the gags and a standard-sized set, this concert production of Little Me could certainly keep Broadway audiences laughing and toe-tapping for quite some time. Maybe Simon, Coleman and Leigh had it right all along.