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Pardon My English

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Broadway musical was still finding its legs in 1933; true, one milestone title, Show Boat, had come and gone (and come again), but musicals' books were still basically functional and little more. They were successful if they got the audience from joke to joke and song to song, but it's safe to say that few attended musicals for their stories.

Pardon My English, despite a score by George and Ira Gershwin, is one example of a musical that no one attended for its music, either - it ran 46 performances and then vanished for six decades. Its score was unearthed and reconstructed in the early 1990s, but whatever libretto that tied the musical numbers together has been lost to the ages. Posterity's loss is our gain, at least as far as the City Center Encores! production of the show, running through Sunday, is concerned.

Working from an early version of the Herbert Fields/Morrie Ryskind script, adapter David Ives has not reassembled the show as much as resuscitated it. He's done a superb job of creating as seamless a 2004 analogue to a 1933 musical comedy as one could dare hope for. With every line, creaky wise-crack, and over-complicated plot twist, Ives's adaptation swings past the irresponsible into the irresistible, and results in one of the most unapologetically entertaining Encores! productions in years.

The audience's part of the bargain is to not bother searching for unnecessary depth in the story about a German speakeasy (serving prohibited soft drinks) and its owner Golo (Brian d'Arcy James), who becomes the English Michael Bramleigh whenever he's hit on the head. Golo's partner in crime is also his romantic partner, the Polish chanteuse Gita Gobel (Emily Skinner), but Michael inadvertently falls for Frieda Bauer (Jennifer Laura Thompson), the daughter of the police commissioner (Rob Bartlett) intent on shutting down Golo's operation.

Director Gary Griffin and his company do what they can to make the convoluted story bearable, having as much fun setting up the corny jokes and eye-rolling pay-offs as the cast of last year's mid-season Encores! entry, The New Moon, did in lampooning Oscar Hammerstein II's libretto. They can be excused for not taking the material seriously - it was clearly never intended to be looked at that way.

The score, on the other hand, is performed with consummate care. Under the direction of the esteemed Rob Fisher, the Encores! Orchestra sounds wonderful as always, their performance of Pardon My English's lengthy yet exciting overture easily ranking as one of the season's musical highlights. Bluesy and jazzy, it doesn't recall pre-World War II Dresden as much as it suggests the fizzy, pulsing New York that was the inspiration for so many grand Gershwin compositions, but it's a delight.

Most of the score's songs are more rightly termed "guilty pleasures," though there is one true gem of a romantic duet ("Isn't It a Pity?") and another almost as precious ("Tonight"). There's a peppy number celebrating the excitement of excess ("I've Got to Be There"), three comedy numbers sung by psychoanalysts, the wryly affectionate title song, and a martial number for the Dresden police ("The Dresden Northwest Mounted" always get their man... if they can). That's just in the first act - the second act is less interesting musically, though it does include a couple of juicy operettic scenes amid the plot-resolving necessaries.

Griffin keeps up the pace and builds tension as best he can, while still leaving Rob Ashford enough space for some blithely silly choreography. The production's physical elements (John Lee Beatty's minimal sets, Martin Pakledinaz's concert-oriented costumes, and Ken Billington's lights) are all fine, though sound designer Scott Lehrer could stand to turn down the volume a bit.

The cast, however, keeps their volume happily up throughout. James's easy charm is ideal for Golo and Michael, and Jennifer Laura Thompson nicely taps into her innate warmth for Frieda, and their voices complement each other beautifully. Skinner's smoky attack on Gita is lots of fun, and Bartlett's comic bluster makes Commissioner Bauer entertaining, if never threatening. Don Stephenson and Felicia Finley make the most out of their secondary (and mostly extraneous) roles, though Finley deserves hazard pay for not only having to deliver the evening's worst (best?) joke, but making it land squarely on target.

Her success isn't surprising, though: taking the unworkable and making it play has always been part of the Encores! mission. This production is a perfect example of the many pleasures that can be found in even the most forgotten or neglected titles; no one will ever mistake Pardon My English for a great show, but the Encores! production makes a winning and eminently enjoyable case for it just the same.

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City Center Encores!
Pardon My English
City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: (212) 581-1212 or www.citycenter.org