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The Happiest Girl In The World: No Sex Please, We're Rebels

Every man, I must alert you,
When seeking a lady fair,
Always gravitates to virtue,
Still hoping it won't be there…  

This is man's ambivalent taste,
Whatever is chased has got to be chaste.
Paradox is deep in his blood.
He's after the rose, but leaps at the bud.

E. Y. "Yip" Harburg certainly wrote more beloved lyrics for The Wizard of Oz and his work in Finian's Rainbow overflows with more sumptuous poetic imagery, but the wickedly funny wordplay he provided for his naughty operetta, The Happiest Girl In The World, set to the musical themes of 19th Century composer Jacques Offenbach, certainly has its clever, if sometimes borderline smutty, charms.  

Now being revived for the second time by Off-Off Broadway's Medicine Show, when this combination of Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Bulfinch's Mythology hit Broadway in April of '61, it was generally regarded as a "tired businessman" musical; the type of carefree entertainment where overworked number crunchers could get away from it all for a few hours laughing at the antics of star Cyril Ritchard while admiring "the loveliest babes to come along in months" (Earl Wilson, New York Post) and a lot of "shapes, shapes, shapes and legs, legs, legs" (Robert Coleman, New York Mirror). 

Beginning with the always-timely anti-war play from 411 B.C., where the women of Athens go on a sex strike until their husbands end a lengthy war against Sparta, it was Harburg's idea to have Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, be the one who plants the seeds of rebellion into the mind of Lysistrata, wife of Athenian General Kinesias in this version.  Diana's uncle Pluto, God of the Underworld (originally played by Ritchard), learns of her plan and attempts to thwart her efforts, assuming a number of comical guises in the process.  

Lasting a mere two and a half months in its original mounting, The Happiest Girl in The World nevertheless made for an enjoyable and well-sung original cast album.  Harburg and Fred Saidy, who wrote the original book with Henry Myers, made further revisions to the text, which were used when Medicine Show first revived the show in 1990.  The current incarnation also includes excerpts from Aristophanes and references to contemporary events.  These more serious additions don't always mix well with the frivolity of the original Broadway version, but they're certainly in keeping with the tradition of adapting Lysistrata to more fully relate to modern audiences.  

Directed by the company's artistic director, Barbara Vann, Medicine Show's production features a company more at home with the musical's comical book scenes than the song and dance moments.  There are some good voices in the chorus, especially hearty soloist Ray Bendana, but the ensemble doesn't blend well vocally.  Likewise, dance numbers seem unorganized and crowded, despite the presence of some good dancers.  But they're certainly never lacking for gusto and energy. 

Sarah Engelke, who played the Gertrude Lawrence role in Medicine Show's production of Nymph Errant with an effervescent fizz, appears here as Lysistrata and puts her knack for light wit and understated silliness to good use.  Engelke is a charmingly poised comic leading lady with a pretty soprano voice.  Mark J. Dempsy is great fun as Pluto, displaying a healthy dose of musical comedy showmanship.  Nique Haggerty is a perky and sweet Diana and Samuel H. Perwin scores some good laughs as the self-centered Kinesias.  

Paul Gugliotta's set (with décor by Knox Martin and Julianna Lazzaro) is a terrific cartoon version of ancient Greece and Uta Bekela's costumes are attractive on an obviously minimal budget.   Though they don't produce musical revivals regularly, when Medicine Show does they've been known to come up with some interesting titles such as Panama Hattie and the aforementioned Nymph ErrantThe Happiest Girl In The World is by no means an underappreciated classic, but the whimsical Harburg lyrics set to the tunefulness of Offenbach are certainly worth a listen, and here's a chance for lovers of Broadway's obscurities to get some sense of how they work in context.  

Photos by John Quilty:  Top:  Nique Haggerty and Sarah Engelke
Bottom:  Mark J. Dempsy, Samuel H. Perwin and Sarah Engelke


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From This Author Michael Dale