The Beauty Prize: Something New From Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse
Broadway was a pretty crowded part of town during the 1923-24 season, when 240 new productions opened. It wasn't unusual during that time to have 2 or 3 shows opening the same night. So perhaps that's why Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse opted to open their musical The Beauty Prize on London's slightly less congested West End. After all, Kern already had two other new musicals opening on Broadway that season, not to mention a return engagement of Marilynn Miller in the legendary Sally.
82 years after a very healthy London run of 214 performances, The Beauty Prize finally hits America in a lively and funny staged reading courtesy of Musicals Tonight!, the company that specializes in reviving rarely seen musicals written by some of Broadway's great masters.
For you musical theatre scholars out there, The Beauty Prize is in the style of the famous Princess Musicals, a series of intimate musical comedies created by Kern, Wodehouse and often Guy Bolton. These were among the first musicals to focus on presenting regular people in realistic plots (If not exactly plausible, they were at least possible) with songs that came out of the story. Yes, they were silly and contrived, but the material still had a certain degree of sophistication that shone through.
In this one, Wodehouse teamed up with George Grossmith, the son of a famous Gilbert and Sullivan player and an actor-manager in his own right, to write the frequently clever book and lyrics. For those who insist on knowing the plot, it deals with a young American girl looking for love in London, who keeps her wealth a secret because she wants to meet a man who'll love her for herself. She gets engaged to a fellow who is also very rich, but he's keeping his wealth a secret because he want to meet a... (I really don't have to finish that sentence, do I?). As a joke, the girl's friend secretly enters her in a photo beauty contest where 1st prize is the hand in marriage of a rather eccentrically nerdy bloke. (Like I said... possible, but not necessarily plausible.) Well, she wins, of course, and her "prize" arrives on the day she's supposed to marry the other guy, but it turns out there's some legal mumbo jumbo obligating her to wed the nerdy bloke. There are other assorted characters with their own little subplots and in Act II everybody winds up on an ocean liner cruise where they complicate the plot further until they all match up with proper mates somewhere on an estate on Long Island.
The score has got plenty of bouncy choral numbers which all sound great under Rick Hip-Flores' music direction, but like most of the Kern/Wodehouse collaborations, the score is highlighted by lyrics that were fresh and contemporary for their time. The catchy and funny "You Can't Make Love By Wireless" spoofs the 1920's obsessions with technology the same way a song about iPods might do so today. There's a goofy ensemble number about the pleasures of playing mah-jong and, because Wodehouse just assumed his audience read the latest good books, a song of American home-life salutes George F. Babbitt. As usual for Musicals Tonight!, director Thomas Mills stages the songs with imagination and humor, and moves the book along swift enough to get by any rough patches.
Kelly Grant and Sean Hayden make an attractive and charming leading couple, with the latter displaying some fine soprano flourishes. Mike Masters, as the "prize" makes a lovable oddball as does the comically nasal-voiced Annie Ramsey. Justin Sayre, who made such a splash in his last Musicals Tonight! appearance as the Noel Coward-ish Eric in Cole Porter and Moss Hart's Jubilee, is once again winning and extremely funny in that character type so unique to early musicals, the flamboyantly sophisticated "heterosexual" male.
The Beauty Prize only runs through May 8th, but two days later Musicals Tonight! returns with Drat! The Cat!, the short-lived Broadway musical satire from the 60's that has developed quite a cult following.