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Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Megan Hilty
Photo by Joan Marcus

"On-tray!"

Of the many phrases that trip so lithely, lovingly, and cluelessly out of the mouth of Miss Lorelei Lee, the bubble-headed, golden-haired gold-digger who used her big assets to make a big name for herself after moving to the Big City, none is quite as luscious as this one. You can tell what word it's supposed to be, and the intent especially as it's always accompanied by an outstretched arm and a flexed hand primed for kissing is similarly clear each of the many times you hear it. But, as Lorelei says about something else, "It can't be pure French because I don't understand it." Indeed, it's not: It is, instead, the language of entertainment ecstasy, which is, for all intents and purposes, the only vernacular spoken by the glitzy and glorious City Center Encores! rendition of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

With John Rando's production, which is running through Sunday night, no translation is needed. Quite the opposite, in fact: Witnessing musical comedy this elaborately polished and painstakingly executed actually tells you more about where the form came from, where it is, and where it's going than you could get from any two or three seasons of new and revived shows on Broadway. If you see this and, make no mistake, you should you'll understand not only why it catapulted Carol Channing (who originated Lorelei) to stardom, but why, at that point in our history, the Broadway musical was deservingly earning its crown as America's foremost artistic invention.

I'm loath to deploy the word "art" when talking about this show, which elevates fluff to levels we today would consider ludicrous at best or impossible at worst, but none other really applies. Marshmallow light as it may be, this musical, which was written by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos (book, adapted from Loos's celebrated 1925 novel and the subsequent play based on it, and smartly reduced for Encores! by David Ives), Leo Robin (lyrics), and Jule Styne (music), is a nearly flawless example of how to make material devoid of substance play like it's constructed from concrete. That's something a lot of today's musical makers could stand to learn.

The story concerns little more than whether Lorelei and her friend and chaperone Dorothy Shaw will get the men they want, when they want them preferably aboard the Ile de France ocean liner on which they're, ahem, cruising. And if the former is at odds with her boyfriend and (literal) button magnate Gus Esmond and the latter unsure her working-girl charms will go down with the society son, Henry Spofford, she's wooing, that things will end happily is never remotely in doubt.

But the myriad pointless pieces all fit together so well, getting there is all the fun. Just look at the character roster, itself a recipe for hilarity. Joining Lorelei (played here by Megan Hilty), Dorothy (Rachel York), Gus (Clarke Thorell), and Henry (Aaron Lazar), are the ultra-rich English sniffs, the Beekmans (Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley); Henry's mother (Deborah Rush), who wants nothing more than a sip of prohibited champagne, but can't beneath her son's watchful eye; Josephus Gage (Stephen R. Buntrock), the zipper proponent and fitness nut who presents a direct threat to Gus's fastening superiority; and Gloria (Megan Sikora), a Follies dancer who can't stop practicing. And did I neglect to mention the French solicitor and his son (Brennan Brown and Steven Boyer) who get wrapped up in Lorelei's jewel-hungry travails, the two world-class tap dancers (Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes), the chorus line of leggy ladies dressed as buttons and champagne glasses, and a men's Olympic team?

This is 1920s randomness at its most heady, so don't bother trying to figure out how or why they all come together. Though originally staged in 1949, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is barely integrated by our standards; it's little more than an excuse for material that electrifies in spite of the common sense it flouts. The book is rigorously entertaining, even if it abandons all pretense of cohesion in Act II. And whether in ballads ("Bye, Bye Baby," "Just a Kiss Apart," "You Say You Care"), lusty hoofing extravaganzas ("I Love What I'm Doing," "Mamie Is Mimi," "Keeping Cool with Coolidge"), comic romps ("It's Delightful Down in Chile," "I'm A'Tingle, I'm A'Glow"), or Lorelei's own made-to-order showstoppers ("I'm Just a Little Girl From Little Rock" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend"), the score sizzles and soars, packing a concentrated punch of pure joy that you want to get coldcocked by time and time again.

These aural pleasures are only augmented by the lengthy dance breaks (arranged by the masterful Trude Rittman), which choreographer Randy Skinner has filled with dances bursting with go-for-broke gusto; the burnished-brassy orchestrations by Don Walker (played with sinewy suavity by the Encores! orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman), and Hugh Martin's stunningly rich and varied vocal arrangements. They're all of such incomparably addicting quality that even if your brain tells you it's all in service of silliness, it never especially matters alchemy counts for a lot, and this show has veritable fountains of it.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Megan Hilty and Deborah Rush, Aaron Lazar, Clarke Thorell, Rachel York, and Stephen R. Buntrock.
Photo by Joan Marcus

What it also has are impeccable designs (sets by John Lee Beatty, costumes by David C. Woolard, and lights by Peter Kaczorowski) and, even more important, a first-rate cast. The singers and comic dynamos comprising it would be hard pressed to make more of the opportunities the script and Rando, who's likewise doing some of his own best work, have provided. York is a saucy and sultry Dorothy, Lazar a superbly sung and largely understated Henry, and Buntrock a walking-and-singing treadmill of kinetic energy. Shipley, Jones, and Rush bring an air of respectability to their parts that anchors much of the confusion, and Brown and Boyer dazzle as the goofily Gallic duo Lady Beekman hires to... oh, never mind.

Unsurprisingly, it's Hilty who makes the biggest splash. The star of Wicked and 9 to 5 on Broadway, and currently of Smash on television, is less idiosyncratic than evidence suggests Channing was (who wouldn't be?), but tints her portrayal with exactly the kind of intelligent idiocy needed to keep her a scream throughout. Even her method of waddling about the stage one of her crosses, to retrieve a hat, is a triumph of comedy and friction alike is at once bizarrely wrong and completely right, just like the know-it-all know-nothing herself. Yet when Lorelei sings, she leaves no question about who she is or what she wants, and Hilty glitters no less the rocks she's singing about when she steps in front of a tinseled curtain to tout of "affairs that you must keep Masonic." And she derives more laughs from warbling the words "strong box" than would seem possible.

What Hilty really reinforces, however, is that the mating of great performers with great material is the surest route to a remarkable evening, and there are more than enough of them here to guarantee scintillating success. It's so effortlessly effervescent especially compared to something like, say, the current revival of Anything Goes (which is also set mostly on a ship) that you may want to dismiss it, but don't: It also demonstrates, contrary to so much of today's thinking, that devotion and craft are crucial even when the show barely has a recognizable brain. So what if all its calories are empty? Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a rich enough "on-tray" that the only thing it leaves you hungry for is more.


Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Through May 13
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including intermission.
New York City Center's Mainstage, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues.
Tickets online: www.nycitycenter.org