Stage Review

A Connecticut Yankee

NY City Center Encores! – February 2001

Review by John Kenrick

Not all Rodgers and Hart musicals are created equal. While Babes in Arms, On Your Toes and Pal Joey are still potent entertainment, most of their musical comedies – despite moments of great melody and luscious wit – are creakier than the passage of six decades would suggest. Sad to say, A Connecticut Yankee is firmly in this latter group. It was a major hit when it debuted in 1927, but its 1943 revival was a disappointment, and it has not been seen in New York since then. This Encores! production relied on a clumsy fusion of the two versions.

The story involves Martin, a young Connecticut businessman (and Arthurian scholar) who finds his affections torn on the eve of his wedding. Caught in the arms of Alice – the girl he truly loves – he is knocked unconscious by his outraged fianc e Fay. Martin comes to in the legendary court of Camelot, where he promptly falls in love with a girl who is the spitting image of Alice. After winning over King Arthur, Martin converts the court into a profitable corporate organization, but find he must resist the jealousies of Merlin and the sexual advances of the king's murderous sister, Morgan LeFay. When all seems lost, Martin gets another bop on the head, and reawakens in modern Connecticut – in the arms of his beloved Alice.

The humor in this Herb Fields script depends on puns and misunderstandings, heavily laced with pseudo-Medieval terms like "forsooth" and "withal" – all perfectly acceptable in 1927, but lame today. The Rodgers and Hart score has aged gracefully, but one can't help cringing at the lengths Hart went to in digging up awkward rhymes for "Camelot." (Alan Jay Lerner wisely avoided such rhymes when he tackled the same era.)

That said, it is heaven to hear songs like "Thou Swell" and "My Heart Stood Still" performed with Don Walker's glorious original orchestrations. Rob Fisher and his Coffee Club Orchestra, the musical heart of the Encores! series, made every song an audio treat, abetted by a cast of first-rate musical comedians.

Steven Sutcliffe, best known as Younger Brother in Ragtime, is suitably charming as Martin, teaming neatly with the irresistible Judy Blazer's (Titanic) Alice. Laugh-in veteran Henry Gibson is a deliciously bumbling Arthur, and Peter Bartlett (The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told) handles the role of Merlin with his usual wry flamboyance, finding laughs in lines that would confound lesser talents.

It is no surprise when Christine Ebersole stops the show with Morgan LeFay's "To Keep My Love Alive," a hilarious but gory litany of methods she has used to "bump off" her dozens of husbands. She offers flawless comic timing and superb vocal technique, giving the audience ample cause to demand every encore verse. But few expected newcomers Sean Martin Hingston and Nancy Lemenager (as Sir Galahad and Lady Evelyn) to set the place roaring with their song-and-dance take on the rarely heard "I Feel at Home With You." One hopes to see more of these two on Broadway in seasons to come.

This score is far better than the show it carries. If your theatre group is looking for something good to revive, I must sadly urge you to steer clear of A Connecticut Yankee.

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