BWW Review: Carmen Cusack's a Charmer in Encores! Mounting of Irving Berlin's Political Spoof CALL ME MADAM
The brevity of political satire's shelf life tends to rival that of a tray of supermarket eggs, but it seems one of the quips penned by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse for the book of their smash hit 1950 musical Call Me Madam is breathing in new life in the 21st Century.
When originally uttered, the gag involving the surprise outcome of the last presidential election no doubt reminded audience members of that infamously incorrect "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. When delivered on opening night of the frothy new City Center Encores! concert production, the reaction was obviously inspired by a more recent surprise victory.
Audiences back then were also far more familiar with inspiration behind the show's premise; Truman's appointment of D.C. socialite and world-class party hostess Perle Mesta as America's Ambassador to Luxembourg, a glamour position of little political consequence.
The buzz that Irving Berlin was writing songs for a musical where Ethel Merman would be playing a spoof of Perle Mesta was all that was needed to keep a steady line at the box office. Today, Call Me Madam is mostly known for the showstopping classic, "You're Just In Love," but the socko Berlin score also contains the star's comic gem "The Hostess With The Mostess On The Ball," the catchy charmer "It's a Lovely Day Today" and a solid romantic ballad "Marrying For Love."
The book by the Pulitzer-winning co-authors most known for the comedy LIFE WITH FATHER and the book for THE SOUND OF MUSIC is chock full of gags touching on subjects like Margaret Truman's singing career and General MacArthur's decreased status, and the score contains a vaudevillian trio questioning whether or not General Eisenhower will run for president in 1952. (Spoiler: He does.)
As Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel explained to the opening night customers, Call Me Madam was previous mounted by the company as the first entry of its second season, back in 1995. They're revisiting the rollicking musical comedy in 2019, as part of City Center's 75th Anniversary Celebration, because he regards that production as the one that saved the fledgling company. As their first entry featuring a nationally known star (Tyne Daly), it was their first show to turn a profit.
While Daly shares many qualities with the brassy Ms. Merman, director Casey Hushion's swift and comical staging is centered around the more graceful presence of Carmen Cusack. Playing Sally Adams, the political neophyte from Oklahoma who lived a modest rural life until her daddy struck oil, Cusack's casual charm comes with a delightful drawl and spirited country-pop vocals, often augmented by outstretched arms taking sassy poses. Dressed in sharp mid-20th Century ensembles by designer Jen Caprio, she's a fun combo of homespun gusto and socialite fizziness.
Caprio also supplies the residents of the tiny nation of Lichtenburg, Sally's new assignment, with colorful old-school Euro-folk costumes, particularly appropriate when choreographer Denis Jones has them spoofing traditional dances. Music director/conductor Rob Berman's 29-piece on-stage orchestra, playing the Golden Age sound of Don Walker's original orchestrations, includes a featured pair of ocarina players.
Sadly, Lichtenburg is in such financial distress that the locals can't even enjoy their most popular treat, Lichtenburg cheese, which is all exported to the U.S. in exchange for healthy American dollars. Sally, smitten with government higher-up Cosmo Constantine (elegant Ben Davis, sporting a lovely baritone), offers a fat American loan, but Cosmo, who returns Sally's attraction, is determined to install programs that will help the nation get back on its feet on its own. Back home, the U.S. government is so delighted to see a struggling country turn down American generosity that they double the offer.
The secondary romantic situation involves Sally's young attaché, Kenneth (appealingly nerdy Jason Gotay), who has fallen for Lichtenburg's princess, Maria (Lauren Worsham, hilariously goofy). Peppering the proceedings in comical supporting roles are Randy Rainbow, sporting his trademark pink glasses as a smarmy Lichtenburg official, Carol Kane and Darrell Hammond as the severely regal Grand Duchess and her whiny Grand Duke and a trio of hard-nose American politicos played by Adam Heller, Brad Oscar and Stanley Wayne Mathis.
By no means a classic musical, Call Me Madam is nevertheless a classic style musical of its time, offering 1950s audiences some good laughs, some pleasing new tunes and a big star performance. And you didn't have to take out a loan or access a government program to afford tickets.