The Darling of the Day

The York Theatre Company, NYC - April 2005

Reviewed by John Kenrick

I have just one bone to pick with the York Theatre Company. If they are going to insist on presenting magical evenings like their current concert staging of Darling of the Day, they really must provide seat belts. As it is now, there is no way for audiences to avoid levitating right into the ceiling. I for one have rarely felt so weightless -- a feeling I only get when seeing a wonderful musical brilliantly performed.

We now have several musical theatre concert series in New York City, all sharing the express purpose of uncovering unappreciated gems from Broadway's past. Darling of the Day is easily one of the finest gems that York's "Musicals in Mufti" -- or any other series, for that matter -- has yet presented. The irresistible music is by Jule Styne, with ingenious lyrics by E.Y. "Yip Harburgh. But the original 1968 staging was plagued by pre-Broadway demons, going through three directors and at least five librettists. That production was also hindered by leading man Vincent Price, who many felt was woefully miscast as an Edwardian painter trying to escape fame by switching identities with his dead valet.

Happily, the radiant Patricia Routledge was on hand to play the feisty English girl who loves this artist and brings joy to his previously loveless existence. Despite mostly fine reviews, Darling of the Day faded after barely a month, but Routledge so delighted critics and audiences that she received the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. A fine cast recording helped keep memories of this show alive, as did surviving audience members who insisted that this was one flop that deserved a far better fate.

The York gave Darling of the Day a fresh chance in a delicious 1998 Mufti staging. Of course, it helped that playwright-lyricist Erik Haagensen was on hand to smooth out the libretto and restore some songs cut during the tempestuous pre-Broadway tryouts. He has since stuck with the project, making further improvements in the script -- which to my mind is far stronger than any of the new musicals we've been subjected to on Broadway this season. (Intelligent humor in a musical? What a concept!) Director Michael Montel has also been on hand for both Mufti stagings, giving this supposedly complex work a flow and polish few could hope to manage with barely five days of rehearsal. The musical direction is in the hands of Andrew Gerle, who had the ensemble flying through demanding choral numbers as if they had been at it for months instead of mere hours.

Two of the leads are returnees from the last Mufti cast. Simon Jones once again gives the title character just the right touch of wry British humor, proving what a difference proper casting makes for solidly written material. Broadway's own Stephen Mo Hanan plays a conniving art dealer with visible relish, and you can't help sharing his joy while he performs Harburgh's often hilarious lyrics. Fellow Broadway veteran Beth Fowler is a newcomer to the role of an unscrupulous art collector, but her glorious singing and exquisite comic timing give one the happy illusion that the role was written for her. When Hanan and Fowler join forces for "Panache," listeners enter that now rarely-seen place known as musical comedy heaven -- where beloved pros can share a moment of giddy fun liberally sprinkled with catchy melody and amazing rhymes.

Also making a first-time appearance in Darling of the Day is Rebecca Luker, and I dare you to find a more splendiferous performer on any stage. Oh, what a rare treat it is to hear her sumptuous soprano voice fill a room without any electrical assistance, breaking hearts with the sweet waltz "Let's See What Happens" or soaring into the show stopping drinking song "Not On Your Nellie." One of the brightest lights in the musical theatre, Luker has never been more perfectly cast, or more irresistible. This is the kind of performance that makes musical theatre lovers literally shout for joy!

But that is true of this entire York Theatre production of Darling of the Day. This is precisely what the "Musicals in Mufti" series was created for -- a chance to rediscover a lost treasure, performed by an outstanding cast in a simple yet thoroughly effective presentation. One can only hope that this all too brief run will inspire someone in the New York area to give this show the fully staged revival it richly deserves -- or at the very least inspire some label to invest in a new cast recording. All the recycled films and jukebox musicals now flooding Broadway put together do not have a fraction of the wit and warmth that fill every scene and song in Darling of the Day. Thank heaven the York has done so much to keep this endearing musical alive. Now if only they would install those seat belts . . .

This concert production ran April 15-17, 2005.

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