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Review: Musicals Tonight! Offers Cole Porter Rarity, MEXICAN HAYRIDE

When recalling all 24 Broadway musicals with original scores by one Cole Albert Porter, Mexican Hayride would undoubtedly be one of the latter to come to mind; perhaps a bit after See America First and Hitchy-Koo of 1919.

But the lavishly produced Michael Todd 1944 production - featuring a cast of 99 - kept wartime audiences laughing and humming for well over a year. The humming was inspired by melodies such as "Sing To Me, Guitar," "Abracadabra," and "Count Your Blessings" and the laughs were primarily motivated by the antics of top-billed star Bobby Clark, a wise-cracking vaudevillian comic known for wearing painted-on eyeglasses.

As a star vehicle tailored to the talents of mostly forgotten clown, Mexican Hayride wasn't seen much after its initial Broadway run. In fact, the new concert mounting by the Obie-winning company, Musicals Tonight! is the show's first New York appearance in nearly 70 years. And while the complicated story within Herbert and Dorothy Fields' book adds up to little more than song cues and broad comedy bits and the Cole Porter score, though certainly not without its wit and charm, is not of the master's top drawer, it's great to have a company like Musicals Tonight! around to treat Broadway lovers to inexpensive mountings of rare-seen entertainments not even Encores! would touch.

The original production had Clark as two-bit con man, Humphrey Fish, out on the lam in Mexico hiding amongst a crowd of American tourists at a bullfight. When an American matador named Montana (originally played by June Havoc) spots him in the stands as the skunk who ran out on her sister, she angrily throws a ceremonial bull's ear at him, forgetting that the person who catches it is honored as the country's esteemed guest for "Amigo American Week."

Humphrey takes advantage of the situation to set up a national lottery, which the authorities find out is really more of a numbers game, and, with his accomplice, Lombo, tries to escape in a series of disguises, including a mariachi player, a tortilla vendor and an Indian woman.

For Musicals Tonight!, M.X. Soto does a delightfully old-fashioned top banana turn as Humphrey, playing him as a slow-witted lug with a flexible mug and plunging into some admittedly tired vaudeville bits with gusto. As Montana, snazzy Jessica Wagner belts out the score's best numbers and scores a fun comic turn with the obligatory list song, "There Must Be Someone For Me."

Jacob L. Smith displays a fine romantic baritone as Montana's love interest and Natalie Ramirez chimes in with a lovely soprano as Latin entertainer, Lolita.

The evening includes a few songs that were cut from the score before opening night, including, "He Certainly Kills The Women," about a dullard who inexplicably has a way with the ladies. Wagner, Amie Bermowitz and Tara Lynne Khaler deliver it as a terrific harmonic trio.

The company's perennial director/choreographer, Thomas Sabella-Mills, stages with simplicity as the talented and enthusiastic cast performs with scripts in hand, sounding great under James Stenborg's music direction.

As was his habit, Cole Porter stuffed his lyrics with a lot of topical references. Fortunately, producer Mel Miller is always around at intermission in case you have questions about the mentions of topics like Wendell Willkie or the Hays Office. Unfortunately, neither of us could figure out the meaning of a gag about The Metropolitan Opera doing Carmen in whiteface.

EDIT: Regarding "Carmen in whiteface," David Levy reminds me that Mexican Hayride opened the year after Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones. Brilliant. And thanks.

Photos by Michael Portantiere: Top: Jessica Wagner and M.X. Soto; Bottom: Amie Bermowitz, Jessica Wagner and Tara Lynne Khale.

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