By Austin Yang
Going to a show resurrected for a week at Encores! is like visiting a museum with a special exhibition held for a limited time. It’s often an adequately diverting but distanced glimpse into the past, at best invoking nostalgia for the material and refurbishing its memory. Encores! has that mission: To bring about the older, more obscure of American musicals and present them to today’s audiences with “concert productions that remain true to each show’s era and style.”
Is that always a good thing? At Encores!, it often doesn’t matter. We know the zeitgeist in musical theatre has been highly variable over the years, so no era of musical theatre is going to be without an audience, nor will any be received by its entire audience. Encores! productions remaining true to their roots allow audiences to relish what they enjoyed about them, and contemplate what they didn’t.
This is especially true for something like Me & My Girl, a “delightfully old-fashioned” 1930s London hit with its typical vintage musical kit of flashy tap numbers, easy romances, and infectious melodies. Set in 1930s London, it tells the story of Bill Snibson, a wise-cracking Cockney from the Lambeth borough of London who’s named the long-lost heir of the Harefords, a haughty aristocratic family. A stipulation to Bill’s accepting the title and estate is, of course, his becoming “fit and proper,” which members of the family such as the Duchess (Harriet Harris) and Sir John Tremayne (Chuck Cooper) attempt to bring about. When Bill’s Lambeth girlfriend, Sally (Laura Michelle Kelly), gets involved, “hilarity and chaos ensue”.
Suffice it to say, the plot was not the reason behind the popularity of Me & My Girl. The show takes some inconsequential turns to reach its resolution, which is dully formulaic save for the nod to Pygmalion. The characters here do not sufficiently carry the show throughout; even Borle, with his nonstop zingers and warm, effervescent charm was burdened by playing one of the less impressively written roles of his career. And truthfully, I wasn’t convinced by his Cockney accent. The score, possibly the most important aspect of a musical especially from that era, is largely unremarkable save for a few standouts.
As such, Me & My Girl and its memory survive on moments. Even with Stephen Fry’s revised book, it’s the occasional highlights that become this musical, not a consistent level of entertainment throughout; moments mostly within the score, ranging from romantic and dreamy (Me & My Girl, Leaning On A Lamppost) to declarative (Once You Lose Your Heart) to droll (The Family Solicitor) to big, flashy, and show-stopping.
Which begs mention, of course, to the famous act-one finale, “The Lambeth Walk.” It was performed with such enthusiasm and energy that the ensemble both literally and figuratively spilled off the proscenium. With that and the spoon gimmick, it’s no wonder it spawned a dance craze in the 30s. And as far as I could tell, no matter how many refrains they piled on (as far as I can tell the number exceeded ten), the audience never tired of it.
Equally noteworthy was the second act opener, “The Sun Has Got His Hat On.” Mark Evans in the role of Gerald leads the ensemble in an excellently choreographed number that includes only the fiercest of tap routines.
That caliber of dance, in conjunction with talented, well-cast voices, and the consistently above reproach orchestra at City Center, are most often what make for a memorable Broadway moment at Encores! the likes of which admittedly cannot be found anywhere else, even on Broadway. Again, the real question in putting on Encores! productions is whether those idiosyncrasies are worth the effort, or whether, like in the case of Me & My Girl, they might burden the show’s overall merit. I suppose as long as the audience leaves the theatre contentedly humming The Lambeth Walk, with tap shoes and percussing spoons echoing through their heads, it remains a question worth exploring for future shows.
At City Center through May 13th.
Me and My Girl – L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber’s book; revised by Stephen Fry; Music by Noel Gay Rob Berman Musical Director
WITH Laura Michelle Kelly,Bill Buell, Chuck Cooper, Suzzanne Douglas, Mark Evans, Harriet Harris, John Horton, Simon Jones, Lisa O’Hare, and Don Stephenson.