Encores! at 25: Hey, Look Me Over! You’ll Miss Out If You Don’t!
This city has been blessed with 25 years of New York City Center’s Encores!, and what a way for this organization to celebrate. Bob Martin, whose character in The Drowsy Chaperone (book by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, music/lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison) ushered us through that magnificent musical (I was crossing my fingers for it to win Best Musical that year…it sadly didn’t) from his chair back in May of 2006. Now, he is back on stage in his raggedy cardigan with his mother watching, taking us through a lineup of what this ‘Man In Chair‘ states, as a 25 year subscriber, is his Encores! ‘should-do’ list. Greeted by loud applause when he enters, Bob Martin, who has the most impeccable comic and interruptive timing, makes every moment come alive with WIT and degrading charm. Such a thrill to see him again, as it is to see all the Encores! alumni cast back at New York City Center for this original and glorious production of Hey, Look Me Over! conceived by Jack Viertel (but don’t tell Martin this, he’s taking full credit). And why wouldn’t you want to? This is one of those ‘Do Not Miss‘ kinda nights, so trust me, and don’t.
From the get-go, this eclectic and fun evening is brimming over with high-lights and, well, not exactly low-lights, let’s call them, but slightly-less-than the glorious high-lights that surround them. Martin, with a treasure trove of wonderful asides and introductions take us through eight old musicals, all that fit snuggly into the category of musicals that could be and maybe should be part of the Encores! cannon of shows in need of another glance. Those that did make the cut over the last 25 years grace the proscenium with all their glory. And with each of the eight, we are truly and magically gifted with performers who make us want to ask the important question, “Why aren’t they up on the Broadway stage right now?!?”. Please, someone, give them a show, immediately, because it’s just not fair that they aren’t gracing us with their presence nightly.
I’m not going to spoil any of the lovely surprises and enjoyable moments, but Carolee Carmello (Tuck Everlasting) is utterly fantastic in the musical number that gives this show it’s title from the 1960’s Wildcat (book by N. Richard Nash, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, music by Cy Coleman) that back then, starred a 48-year-old Lucille Ball in her only Broadway show, currently getting a great assist from Britney Coleman (Sunset Boulevard) (see the great pic of Ball below). Reed Birney (The Humans) is also here with Judy Kuhn (Fun Home) giving us a wee bit of All American (adapted by June Walker Rogers from a book by Mel Brooks, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams), a 1962 musical that garnered mostly negative reviews but did give one great hit song, “Once Upon A Time“. I also must thank the wondrous Martin for getting us to that moment quickly, he is such a blessing….And then we have the incomparable Vanessa Williams (Into The Woods) taking us away to 1957 Jamaica (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E. Y. Harburg, book by E. Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy) and reminding us that this woman needs to be back on Broadway ASAP. You hear me, Broadway producers? Immediately! With her singing two songs from that show that were once sung on stage by Lena Horne, we can only sit back with a big shit-eating grin on our face and marvel at her magnificence.
Milk and Honey, the Broadway musical that opened in 1961 at the Martin Beck Theatre and ran for 543 performances was once praised for its “heartwarming integrity” (which in my book doesn’t sound like too big of a compliment) and here at Encores!, even with the glorious dancing from the wonderful ensemble with athletic and challenging choreography by Denis Jones (Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn), the majestic sound of Marc Kudisch’s voice (Finding Neverland), and performances by Tam Mutu (Doctor Zhivago) and Clyde Alves (On The Town), this musical wasn’t exactly the highest of high lights on this night. Not exactly low lights, mind you, but there are far better moments to come.
Much better and far more thrilling was Douglas Sills (War Paint) and Alexandra Sacha (MTC’s Actually) in Mack & Mabel, the 1974 musical (book by michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman) that originally starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. These musical numbers made me want to track down a revival somewhere and see what the eight Tony Award nominations were all about, because what I did see, I loved.
Just like with the opening that featured the Overture from Wildcat, after the intermission, we were graced with the Overture from 1961’s Subways are for Sleeping (book/lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Jule Styne), performed magnificently by The Encores! Orchestra (music coordinator by Seymour Red Press; music direction by Rob Berman). This orchestra is most definitely one of the highlights of any and all of The Encores! productions. What a joy it is to hear them play in full sound glory and view on that expansive stage. Play on, boys and girls, play on!
Up next is the lovely Greenwillow (music/lyrics by Frank Loesser, book by lesser Samuels and Frank Loesser), a 1960 Broadway show that only garnered one “very pleased” review from the New York Times, and subsequently ran for only 97 performances. But here at Hey, Look Me Over!, Clifton Duncan (The Play That Goes Wrong) does everything so right, with a great vocal assist from Kudisch, and the comic charms of Nancy Opel (Curvy Widow) as ‘Gramma’. But the one I was truly waiting for, the performer that I really couldn’t wait to see, glided and sailed onto the stage as graceful as ever, was none other than the glorious and talented Bebe Neuwirth (Chicago, Sweet Charity) giving us everything we could hope for as Mimi in Sail Away. This Broadway musical, with book, lyrics, and music by Nöel Coward, gifted us with the now legendary Elaine Stritch, an actress who started out in a relatively minor role in the out-of-town tryouts in Boston and Philadelphia, but was promoted to the lead and given virtually all the best songs before the show opened on Broadway in 1961. This is what I was waiting for, these Coward songs and Bebe singing them, and I wasn’t disappointed.
For the finale, Clyde Alves and ‘friend’ leads us through the rousing and famous number from George M!, the 1968 Broadway musical that was based on the life of Broadway star, George M. Cohan, who was known as “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” The book was written by Michael Stewart, John Pascal, and Francine Pascal, with music and lyrics by the man himself, George M. Cohan, and starred the absolutely amazing Joel Grey (with a sweet assist from Bernadette Peters). Now that’s something I definitely would love to see!
All staged beautifully by Marc Bruni (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical), with a festive and fun set design by Allen Moyer (Grey Gardens), costumes by Alejo Vietti (Allegiance), lighting by Paul Miller (Encores!’s Big River), and sound design by Dan Moses Schreier (Falsettos), this is a night of celebration that should not be missed. It’s fun and festive, and makes one dream about a glorious future when all these stars will once again grace our Broadway stages in musicals that will give us wonderful memories to hold onto for years to come. In many ways, I am that Bob Martin character, loving these old Broadway shows and the history that surrounds them. They are glorious and a joy to behold. Much like this night. So, thank you Encores! for these past 25 years, it’s been an honor and a thrill. Now what are you waiting for, go get a ticket! You won’t want to Look This Over!