Henry, Sweet Henry

York Theatre Company, NYC - Oct. 2004

Reviewed by John Kenrick

Cast recordings are like photographs -- some are far more flattering than others, and a few can be almost cruelly deceptive. Henry, Sweet Henry ran on Broadway for less than three months back in 1967, a respectable but decided flop. The cast recording offered such an energetic performance of Bob Merrill's melodic score that it kept the show's memory alive. Was the show done in by the New York Times critic? By a lethargic public? By Don Ameche's lackluster performance in the title role?

In its ongoing and enchanting Musicals in Mufti series, the York Theatre Company has given Henry, Sweet Henry a chance to answer those questions. For those unfamiliar with the series, "mufti" means "in street clothes." A talented cast rehearses for one week, then gives a staged reading (street clothes, scripts in hand, solo piano accompaniment) of a forgotten musical that deserves reconsideration. In this workshop environment, these neglected shows look as good on stage as they sound on their cast recordings. As flops go, Henry Sweet Henry is a charmer, with lots of laughs and a catchy title tune I found myself humming hours later. I'm not suggesting anyone should bring it back to Broadway, or even to their local high school -- but it is fun to see it all the same.

Based on the same stories that inspired Peter Sellers' hit film The World Of Henry Orient, it tells of two teenage school girls who develop a crush on a handsome avant-garde composer and gleefully follow him all over the landscape of Manhattan. Their fantasy life crashes into reality when they inadvertently catch the woman-chasing composer in a rendezvous with one of their mothers. Not much plot, but it allows for several hilarious encounters.

During these shenanigans, the girls don Chinese coolie hats as disguises -- a definite no-no today, but par for the pop culture course in the 1960s. There is also the now-questionable spectacle of teenagers pining over a middle aged goat. So while the casting possibilities (lots of girls, only three or four male roles) may sound tempting, this material might have trouble passing muster with sensitive school boards.

As the love-starved Valerie, Anne Letscher scores with a powerhouse belt and a touching sense of vulnerability. As her trusted sidekick Gil, Katie Adams is an exciting find, bringing life to everything she does on stage -- watch for more of this newcomer. Kaitlin Hopkins was perfect as Valerie's insufferable mother, and Mark Nelson had a field day as the smarmy Henry Orient. Hopkins and Nelson were so much fun in their offbeat love scene that it darn near stopped the show. When a mother worries that her runaway teen is out there "in nothing but a light mink," you get the kind of hearty laughs no one expects in a failed show.

Matthew Arkin did a fine job as Valerie's loving but distracted father, and Miriam Shor was a riot in a trio of character roles. Sara Inbar sang with gusto as Val's nemesis Kafritz, but she could (and no doubt will) go much farther in mining the comic hatefulness of this role. The small ensemble looked and sounded great, making the most of some tricky counterpoint numbers. Kudos to musical director David Kirshenbaum for pulling this off in under a week. And director Gordon Greenberg not only kept the flow of action crystal clear -- he even managed to make the stage directions sound witty.

The York Theatre Company is giving Henry, Sweet Henry the best showcase anyone could ask for. I don't think anything will ever turn this show into a masterpiece. But it has humor and melody, which is more than I can say for a great many hits of recent years.

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