By Austin Yang
For 25 years, Encores! at New York City Center has been giving new life to rarely heard American musicals. In celebrating its 25th anniversary, artistic director Jack Viertel and music director Rob Berman created Hey, Look Me Over!: A smorgasbord of said obscure shows. Or rather, selected numbers and scenes from them. Pulling the hits from the misses, if you will. It bears one notable difference from the traditional revue: Bob Martin as the Man In Chair (see Drowsy Chaperone). Martin plays an opinionated Encores! subscriber leading a tour of ten “shocking omissions” from the series, which he cites as “perfectly respectable shows that never made it to this stage for unknown reasons.” After all, as any good urologist will tell you: “Longevity is not the definitive measure of worth.”
Ironically, a show that was meant to unite viewers through a shared love of musical theatre ended up leaving both audiences and critics divided in opinion.
That the show doesn’t sit well with some people is understandable. Though marketed as a musical, Martin’s Man In Chair makes for a thin, insubstantial glue that feels more like the MC of a concert. To Martin’s credit, he is an excellent host, but that still doesn’t give it a plot. On the other hand, what little is elaborated of the premises of the selected musicals often betrayed tastelessness and/or irrelevance in their content that rendered them unfit for presentation in the first place. Furthermore, the caveat of meandering from show to show, covering only selected portions, is that momentum built by one show or number is quickly dissipated to make room for the next, often an entirely different mood. As such, it also runs into some pacing issues: Opening the second act with Greenwillow was slightly underwhelming, and though it had potential, Vanessa William’s interlude of songs from Jamaica felt as contrived and gratuitous as it’d seemed to Bob Martin onstage.
Truthfully, most complaints about Hey, Look Me Over! feel subjective, and don’t detract from what made Hey, Look Me Over a massively delightful and unique experience. All the performances were top form. The 30-piece orchestra played Berman’s revised orchestrations flawlessly and were a fitting backdrop to the intense dance breaks. The overtures were as much a highlight as any scene with actors.
And the actors: Never again will a stage see the same buffet of so many perennial Broadway favorites, each of whom gave linchpin portrayals to rival and even surpass their original counterparts. It was a good night for young male ballads, most notably Clifton Duncan singing “Never Will I Marry” from Greenwillow (Frank Loesser). It was an even better night, however, for belters: Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman carried the banner for the production in an unforgettable rendition of “Hey, Look Me Over!” from Wildcat (Cy Coleman). Judy Kuhn, who had excellent chemistry with both Reed Birney and Mark Kudisch, respectively, tugged at my heartstrings every time she sang. And I would argue, having seen Bebe Neuwirth sing “Why Do The Wrong People Travel,” that it alone warrants a Sail Away (Nöel Coward) revival as a vehicle for the hard-driving star. A definite favorite of the evening, though, has to be Mack & Mabel. Douglas Sills is superbly hard-driving as Mack, and Alexandra Socha absolutely shattered expectations in a dazzling act one finale. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time the curtain fell and I felt the evening had blown by.
One thing to note: The selected shows in Hey, Look Me Over!, all from or bordering the social and cultural cornucopia that is the 60s, touch on many American themes, such as entrepreneurialism, wanderlust, Hollywood, and immigration. Encores! hammers the point home at the end by having the company sing “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” to the tune of an un-lyricized Irving Berlin Song. One can derive a dual interpretation of this warm, inviting number and its words: Just as America is emphasized as a sanctuary for all, so is Broadway, with its quintessentially American book musical, a haven for theatre-lovers of all manner of people. Despite the homogeneity of the affluent middle-aged (and above) at Hey, Look Me Over!, theatre is becoming decreasingly esoteric, and Encores! doesn’t forget that.
It wasn’t a bad idea. Encores! is welcome to try something like this for the next anniversary, as long as it remains true to itself about what it is: A celebration of the little guys—not with full scenes, but full numbers, that ask audiences to simply look it over and enjoy.