NY City Center Encores - February 2014
Review by John Kenrick
If laughter is the best medicine (and I genuinely believe that it is), then President and Congress could save billions by sending the Encores production of Little Me on tour to every corner of the nation. The resulting tidal waves of laughter would cure untold ills from sea to shining sea!
The original production of Little Me came and went when I was just a babe in arms. While critics and audiences praised the hilarious script by Neil Simon and the exceptionally tuneful score by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh, most were disappointed by the sometimes brilliant but ultimately uneven performance of Sid Caesar as most of the men in the life of a fictional trash movie queen. Like many musical theatre buffs, I got to know this show through it's delightful original cast recording, and two Broadway revivals, both of which made various changes. The first revival divvied-up Caesar's roles between James Coco and Victor Garber; the second put all those characters in the capable hands of Martin Short. Both productions had laughs aplenty, but tweaked the material (revised script, new orchestrations) in ways that ultimately left audiences wanting more.
Encores had the good sense to go back to the original Ralph Burns orchestrations and Simon script (with a few fun tweaks), and put this material in the hands of a creative team that knows how to handle musical comedy. John Rando, who directed the brilliant Urinetown and has helmed many fine Encores presentations in recent years, was the perfect choice to stage Little Me, keeping it's zany story line crystal clear and presenting every comic twist and turn to full advantage. Flawless musical direction by Rob Berman, witty set elements by John Lee Beatty, picture perfect costumes by Paul Tazewell and superb lighting by Ken Billington all help some of Broadway's finest performers a chance to work their magic.
As the elder Belle Poitrine, the busty, well-meaning but somewhat dim-witted movie star recounting her crowded love life, Judy Kaye sets precisely the right tone, reminding everyone why she is one of the musical theatre's greatest living treasures. As her younger self, Rachel York offers the perfect combination of sex appeal, vocal fireworks and killer comic timing. Fresh from stealing the wildly popular live NBC broadcast of The Sound of Music, Tony winner Christian Borle scores a solid series of comic knockouts as seven of the men in Belle's life. Several quick change scenes showcase Borle's incredible versatility, and when he impersonates a dictatorial movie director demonstrating the proper use of a prop knife, the resulting hilarity brings back the golden age of American comedy. At one point, he also doffs his shirt to reveal a set of sculpted arms that literally set the opening night audience tittering -- few things are as irresistible as a combination of flawless comic timing and genuine sex appeal.
Tony Yazbeck, one of the greatest dance talents in the theatre today, turns "I've Got Your Number" into a delicious homage to Bob Fosse, who choreographed of the original production. Harriet Harris has a scene stealing field day as a snobbish matron, Robert Creighton is a comedic tornado in seven supporting roles, the marvelous David Garrison (who just finished a triumphant run as Fagin in Paper Mill's Oliver) is under-utilized but slips in a few deft dance steps as Belle's ghost writer Patrick Dennis, and the always reliable Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof are comic perfection as a pair of vaudeville managers.
When Encores is at it's best, it serves as a living time machine, treating audiences to a few delicious hours revisiting great musicals from the past. Little Me is one of the happiest productions in the 20 year history of this series. If you think I exaggerate, just catch this production and rediscover what it is like to laugh until you forget every care and feel pounds lighter. So if you are looking for an affordable health care plan, treat yourself to two and a half riotous hours of Little Me!