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BWW Review: HEY, LOOK ME OVER! from Encores!, a Fun Sampler of Musical Scenes and Songs

When the subject of New York City Center Encores! comes up among musical theatre enthusiasts, the conversation almost invariably steers to what shows they should be presenting in their series of concerts. Although several of their productions, like the mega-hit revival of CHICAGO, have transferred, a night out at Encores! is, to many, most satisfying when they revive shows that, although significant in one way or another, are unlikely to find themselves back on Broadway.

BWW Review: HEY, LOOK ME OVER! from Encores!, a Fun Sampler of Musical Scenes and Songs
Bebe Neuwirth and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Which is part of the fun of the company's historically delicious revue, HEY, LOOK ME OVER! None of the eight shows sampled are likely to be granted commercial runs anytime soon, but each was created by accomplished Broadway professionals who knew how to inject a few choice moments of showbiz panache.

Director Marc Bruni's production is choreographed by Denis Jones. With music director/conductor Rob Berman's thirty-piece orchestra stationed upstage, the show is hosted by Bob Martin, taking on the guise of the character her created for THE DROWSY CHAPERONE, a musical theatre expert simply known as Man In Chair. (For the record, Martin spends most of the show standing up.)

The premise is that Martin's Man is an Encores! subscriber who has been tasked by artistic director Jack Viertel to curate an evening of excerpts from some of the shows he thinks they should be doing. But this isn't just a song and dance concert. In most cases, the books of the musicals are also represented, allowing audiences a taste of the characters and plots.

First up is WILDCAT, the 1960 musical that starred Lucille Ball, set among the early 20th Century Texas oil wells. The rousing overture, played in its entirety, marked the first time Cy Coleman's musical was heard on a Broadway stage. After the opening chorus of "Oil," Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman take the stage as down and out entrepreneur Wildy and her loyal sister Janie, playing out the full scene that's capped with the show's hit number, the popular march, "Hey, Look Me Over!," featuring a jaunty lyric by Carolyn Leigh.

Next is ALL-AMERICAN, the sophomore Broadway entry for composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, and the second Broadway musical with a book by Mel Brooks. Reed Birney, one of the New York stage's premiere dramatic actors, displayed a softly sincere singing voice playing an eastern European college professor who comes to America to teach at a football-crazy university. The sequence begins with a chorus of immigrants singing the catchy and clever rag "Melt Us," followed by the professor's comical first impressions of America, "What A Country!," a song that would eventually become familiar to TV viewers as the jingle for Amtrak commercials. Judy Kuhn plays the college dean and duets with Birney a lovely rendition of the show's hit ballad, "Once Upon a Time."

Vanessa Williams then comes out to sing a pair of Harold Arlen/E.Y. Harburg numbers from JAMAICA. Her nightclub-style performances of "Ain't It The Truth" and "Push De Button" are flashy and fun, but there's no suggestion of the show's plot, who Williams is playing or the context of the songs.

Kuhn returns to play the leading lady of MILK AND HONEY, an American tourist exploring the brand new State of Israel. Marc Kudisch plays the local gentleman who teaches her about the Hebrew language's most versatile word in the waltz, "Shalom." MILK AND HONEY was Jerry Herman's first Broadway musical and it introduced the style of what would become known as the Jerry Herman title song. As the Encores! chorus belts out, "This is the land of milk and honey..." you'll no doubt be reminded of the legendary title songs to HELLO, DOLLY! and MAME.

BWW Review: HEY, LOOK ME OVER! from Encores!, a Fun Sampler of Musical Scenes and Songs
Douglas Sill, Alexandra Socha and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

The first act closes with another Herman show, MACK AND MABEL, which, despite it's very brief Broadway run, many regard as having the master of catchy tunes' best score. Douglas Sills does a terrific job as silent movie pioneer Mack Sennett remembering his troubled relationship with his discovery, screen star Mabel Normand, played by Alexandra Socha as an enchanting bundle of comical energy. Mack's hard-driving "Movies Were Movies" and Mabel's bouncy "Look What Happened To Mabel" are highlights of the revue.

The second act opens with Jule Styne's brassy overture to SUBWAYS ARE FOR SLEEPING, a musical most known for producer David Merrick's fake print ad featuring photos of seven people who had the same names as New York's seven opening night newspaper critics raving about his new production.

Clifton Duncan's majestic solo of "Never Will I Marry," from the folk fantasy GREENWILLOW is another high point of the evening. Sung by a character cursed with a wanderlust, the dramatic Frank Loesser ballad became a jazz standard after being reconceived by Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley.

Bebe Neuwirth proves to be a perfect choice to play the cruise director with a deadpan delivery originated by Elaine Stritch in Noel Coward's SAIL AWAY. Surrounded by a chorus of sailors, she gracefully glides through the musical's opener, "Come To Me," and, keeping the stage for herself, nails every sarcastic zinger in the 11 o'clocker, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?" In between, Tam Mutu, playing the show's leading man role - a right person taking a cruise to get over his broken heart - gives a smooth and heartwarming interpretation of optimistic title song.

The scene that leads into the song features Nancy Opel, who plays numerous non-singing roles throughout the show. Given that she's quite a fantastic musical comedy performer, it seems odd to have her there and not allow her a singing spot.

Before JERSEY BOYS and BEAUTIFUL, there was GEORGE M!, the hit 1968 musical about George M. Cohan's rise from vaudeville to become one of the main inventors of the American musical comedy. Song and dance man Clyde Alves does a snazzy job playing the great entertainer, but he shares the role with a very special guest star. Joel Grey, who took Broadway by storm in the show's original production, enters on cue to sing a chorus of "Give My Regards To Broadway."

Aside from the excitement of watching a Broadway legend recreating one of his classic performances, there's also a touching moment when Grey makes a gesture to Alves indicating he's handing the role over to him, and the young man proudly takes over.

In a show featuring terrific performances by contemporary theatre stars, that connection between musical theatre's past and present is a thoughtful example of what makes City Center Encores! so indispensable.

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