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"The Boy Friend" Needs a Clearer Sense of Direction

"The Boy Friend"

Book, music and lyrics by Sandy Wilson; directed by Julie Andrews; music direction by F. Wade Russo; choreographed by John DeLuca; scenery design by Tony Walton; costume design by Tony Walton and Rachel Navarro; lighting design by Richard Pilbrow and Dawn Chiang; sound design by Jon Weston

Cast in order of appearance:

Hortense, Bethe Austin

Nancy, Margot de la Barre

Maisie, Andrea Chamberlain

Fay, Krysta Rodriguez

Dulcie, Kirsten Wyatt

Polly, Jessica Grové

Marcel, Jordan Cable

Alphonse, Scott Barnhardt

Pierre, Andrew Briedis

Madame Dubonnet, Nancy Hess

Bobby Van Husen, Rick Faugno

Percival Browne, Paul Carlin

Tony, Sean Palmer

Phillipe, Eric Daniel Santagata

Monica, Pamela Otterson

Lord Brockhurst, Drew Eshelman

Lady Brockhurst, Darcy Pulliam

Gendarme/Waiter, Tom Souhrada

Performances: Now through October 23

Box Office: The Shubert Theatre, www.wangcenter.org, or Telecharge.com at 800-447-7400

The Julie Andrews' directed revival of Sandy Wilson's gentle 1920s musical send-up "The Boy Friend" has moved out of its safe harbor at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut and is now playing at the Shubert Theatre in Boston through October 23. In its second stop of a 21-week national tour, the show has matured somewhat since it first took the stage back in August, but it still feels like a tentative flower waiting to bloom.

Many fine elements are on display at the Shubert – Tony Walton's deliciously playful cartoon-like sets; his and Rachel Navarro's alternately colorful, comical and elegant period costumes; a fine Jazz Era sounding orchestra; and knock-out dance numbers by choreographer John DeLuca that fill the stage and make you want to jump out of your seat and Charleston in the aisles. There are also many delightful performances turned in by a strong supporting cast that finds just the right balance between humor and heart.

The chief problem with "The Boy Friend" is its lack of sustained panache, due in large part to a central love story that is played too sincerely. Paper thin in its writing, the rich-boy-pretending-to-be-poor-boy meets rich-girl-pretending-to-be-poor-girl storyline is totally predictable and meant to be played with a wry wink. In this Julie Andrews version, that wink becomes an almost undetectable flicker, hidden under Jessica Grové's all too sad and serious poor little rich girl Polly Browne. Her leading man, a dashing Sean Palmer as the honorable Tony Brockhurst cum delivery boy, does his best to bring animation and chemistry to their duets, "I Could Be Happy with You" and "A Room in Bloomsbury." But Grové seems too concerned with her perfect English diction and vocal delivery of songs to ever get really comfortable with her character's exaggerated romantic appeal or terminally sweet comic side. Polly needs to stand out from the crowd when chatting with her giddy finishing school chums. Instead she is dwarfed by them, overrun by their effervescence and boundless energy.

As Polly's British gal pals who with her are under the tutelage of Madame Dubonnet – the French Riviera's most renowned instructor of "Perfect Young Ladies" – Margot de la Barre, Andrea Chamberlain, Krysta Rodriguez and Kirsten Wyatt are perfectly synchronized silliness. They strut, speak, get engaged, and tease their beaus in unison, but each manages to express a personality all her own. Chamberlain as the provocative Maisie is a showstopper in her numbers "Won't You Charleston with Me?" and "Safety in Numbers," the first danced with the equally talented Rick Faugno as American playboy Bobby Van Husen, the second with the entire company of boys in hot pursuit. As the slightly dimwitted and boy crazy Dulcie, Wyatt misses no opportunity to boop a doop. Her duet "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love" with the delightfully funny Drew Eshelman as the lecherous but endearing Lord Brockhurst is a highlight of the final act.

In support, Darcy Pulliam exudes charm and dignity despite the somewhat shrewish nature of her Lady Brockhurst – and, during the "Carnival Tango" scene in which she has had just a bit too much Port, she brings a whole new meaning to the word "whipped" when it comes to her relationship with her obedient, if otherwise wishful, husband. Bethe Austin as Mme. Dubonnet's maid Hortense tickles the nose like a good French champagne and shows just how limber an aging femme can be during her can-can number, "Nicer in Nice." Paul Carlin as the stiff upper-lipped father of Polly, Percival Browne, is a fun mix of proper British gentleman and flustered schoolboy who positively glows once he falls in love again with his former wartime flame, Mme. Dubonnet.

Only Nancy Hess as the finishing school head mistress seems out of step with the rest of the ensemble. Her stiff posturing, while appropriate when she is setting an example for her impressionable young students, becomes an obstacle to intimacy when she is seducing her beloved Percy. Like Grové, Hess seems to be taking herself a bit too seriously. Her forced French accent (with hints of Eastern European and Scottish influences!) inhibits the natural sensuality her character must exude.

As it is written, "The Boy Friend" is no more substantial than a taste of cotton candy. Its tongue-in-cheek book is sweet and fluffy, but it serves only as a thin framework upon which to hang some pleasant, if non-descript, 1920s style tunes. Unless this show is staged with a consistent, gently self-mocking perspective combined with the devil-may-care attitude and energy of the Roaring Twenties, "The Boy Friend" does not make a satisfying meal. As is the case with this Julie Andrews' directed production, I left the table wanting more.

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