Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

NY City Center Encores - May 2012

Review by John Kenrick

At the tail end of a musical theatre season so dismal that the Tony committee had to resort to nominating the background accompaniment of straight dramas to fill out the "Best Score" category, City Center Encores has once again treated theatergoers to a thrilling reminder of what it is like to relish a bona fide musical treasure presented and performed by people who know what they are doing and who care enough to do it with style. To those who only know Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from its bumptious 1953 film version, this vibrant concert staging must come as a delightful and refreshing surprise. Marilyn Monroe drowned the role of the gem-hungry bombshell Lorelei Lee in her trademark torrent of breathy, one dimensional trashiness, but in 1949 this character (invented in the 1920s by Anita Loos) gave Broadway audiences ample cause to cheer in a Jule Styne-Leo Robin musical of great style, and elevated Carol Channing to lasting status as a star.

Channing's acclaimed appearance in a revised 1974 revision entitled Lorelei, and an ineptly produced 1995 revival of the original show, have led many to suggest that Gentlemen's success relied entirely on its original star. What nonsense -- all this show needed was a fresh approach, and a fresh star inventive enough to take on a brilliantly written role and make it her own. Thanks to God -- and a few other staunch musical theatre lovers -- the glorious Megan Hilty has appeared to make Lorelei Lee as irresistible as ever.

Yes, Ms. Hilty was surrounded by a first rate cast that made the most of every joke, gesture and dance step. Rachel York was scrumptious perfection as Dorothy Shaw, the quintessential good time gal who merrily proclaims that "I Love What I'm Doing (When I'm Doing It For Love)." Simon Jones had a campy blast as a lecherous English nobleman, Deborah Rush turned the potentially tedious role of a high society lush into a comedic triumph, and Stephen R. Buntrock was a hunky hoot as a zipper manufacturer with a passion for exercise and raw carrots. Phillip Grimes and Jared Grimes added real period flair by delivering a rousing tribute to the tap routines of the legendary Nicholas Brothers.

(Note to Megan Sikora -- your acting and dancing as chorus hopeful Gloria Stark were spot on, but no Ziegfeld girl would ever have appeared in public without making sure that the seams of her stockings were straight. Yours were so wildly zig-zag that every step you took seriously distracted from your performance.  Since no one else on stage was wearing seamed stockings, I am not sure if this was your choice or that of the costume coordinator.  If some else was at fault, give them a swift kick in the rump -- in any event, I urge you never to let such a needless error detract from your fine work again.)

The Encores production team made sure that all these fine people were handsomely framed, lit and costumed. John Rando directed with a sure and fast-paced hand, and Randy Skinner's choreography glowed in everything from tap-happy ensembles to a mucho macho Male Olympic team routine. Rob Berman and the Encores Orchestra were in top form, delivering Jule Styne's music with flawless enthusiasm. Leo Robin's fine lyrics, which range from poetic grace to guffaw-worthy comedy, were all delivered with rare effectiveness. Mr. Berman's love for this material shows in every note, and his reign as musical director is one of the best things that has ever happened to the Encores series -- long may he remain to enrich and enliven these encounters with musicals from a happier era.

But in the end, the main triumph of this production belonged to Megan Hilty. Many of us have long expected that she had the makings of a star, and now she has proved us right, in spades! Refusing to either copy or ignore the iconic quirks of Channing and Monroe, she paid affectionate but momentary homage to both with an inflection here, a gesture there -- and otherwise delivered an altogether original and magnificent performance. By the time Hilty got around to singing to the climactic "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," the audience was hopelessly and gratefully in this lady's spell. She delivered every jubilant, hilarious verse as no one ever has, and her reward was that rarest of honors; the audience actually stopped the show. After finishing the song, Hilty exited to lusty cheers, and after she re-entered to start the next scene, the shouting grew all the louder. For a sweet bit of eternity, she and the cast had to stand and wait as the audience roared with appreciation.

For one brief shining moment, Hilty and company gave those of us who saw this superb production a reminder that bungee cords, recycled pop hits, undead Lloyd Webber phantoms, and Disney cartoons reinterpreted by actors wearing puppet heads will never replace the human magic of a great Broadway musical presented and performed with fresh passion. In years to come, nothing new -- I repeat, NOTHING new -- from this Broadway season will linger in the memory of musical theatre fans, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes will always be cherished as one of the most joyous presentations in the long-running Encores series. Thank heaven that Encores continues to thrive, a living reminder of why many of us fell in love with that endangered species, the Broadway musical.

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