Both Christian Borle and Rachel York have shone in numerous projects — he in Smash and The Sound of Music on television, and onstage in offerings as diverse as Legally Blonde and Peter and the Starcatcher; she on Broadway in the likes of City of Angels and Victor/Victoria, and at Encores! two years ago in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes — so hopes were high that they would successfully negotiate the leads in a show that's always had trouble landing. (The original production, starring Sid Caesar and Virginia Martin, ran only about eight months; subsequent mountings in 1982, with Victor Garber and James Coco joining Mary Gordon Murray, and with Martin Short and Faith Prince in 1998, didn't even do that well.) But succeed they don't, and they're all that keep this otherwise effervescent production from catapulting itself into the stratosphere.
Based on Patrick Dennis's 1961 novel, the musical charts the questionable biography of humble-born Belle Poitrine (York) as she sleeps, marries, and lucks her way to the top of various social and economic circles, using, abusing, and discarding — accidentally or otherwise — the many men she meets along the way (almost all of whom Borle plays). From tony high school dances to peasant uprisings to glitzy nightclubs to the S.S. Gigantic on its ill-fated, iceberg-colliding final voyage, Belle is never far from the action or the spotlight, which she is ostensibly pursuing to win the affections of Noble Eggleston, her first and most significant beau, over the status-fueled objections of his meddling mother (Harriet Harris).
Even so, the show really belongs to librettist Simon. Though he'd only had one full-scale show on the Main Stem before Little Me (Come Blow Your Horn), he was already a theatrical-comedy expert capable of dispensing big jokes, small jokes, and throwaway gags with equal facility. His book's pacing might as well be jet-propelled, moving so efficiently along the scope of Belle's life while forgoing no humor along the way. He lampoons, much as Dennis did, the depravity, delusion, and banality of celebrity at its celebritiest.
Unfortunately, neither York nor Borle unlocks the full spectrum of possibilities that Simon's scenarios present. Belle must be a parodically buxom, and yet innocently depraved, sexpot who leaves you constantly wondering about her motives and sanity. Though York looks juicily elegant and can certainly belt her way through the songs, her playing everything as the unassuming straight gal leads to Belle frequently seeming uninvolved in her own story. Belle must pose, coo, shimmy, and even slime her way up the ladder, but York's restrained, even conservative, take is out of step with someone who, as written, is an empty object of desire trying to make a real woman out of herself.
Borle's problem is similar. In playing seven distinct characters in Belle's saga, he makes clear delineations between the high-born Noble, the ancient bank scion Mr. Pinchley, the French lounge singer Val du Val, and so on. But all his takes are very studied, even actorly, which doesn't leave much room for them to be hilarious. The track really calls for a true clown who's less obsessed with psychological justification than with squeezing every possible laugh out of every man. (Caesar would seem to fit the bill; I picture Bill Irwin, though one can also imagine a slightly less flamboyant version of Nathan Lane doing well.) Borle's good for consistent chuckles, but little more, even though his characters, who also include the dopey sergeant who eventually marries Belle, a German film director on the outs, and an Eastern-European crown prince were clearly designed to be riots.
Luckily, there are no other perceptible problems. Rando's light-touch staging and Joshua Bergasse's mock-athletic choreography keep everything buoyant and joyous, and there's a killer B team on hand. Harris is ideal as Noble's emasculating mother, Robert Creighton a dynamo in a series of character roles, Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof a dual Dutch delight as a pair of producers who recognize Belle's latent "talent," and Judy Kaye is pitch-perfect as the older Belle who narrates the look back on her life story. Lower-impact performances come from David Garrison as a narration-minded Dennis and Tony Yazbeck as a man who got away but kept coming back, but even they're top-notch.
Taken together, everything ensures that this Little Me is required viewing for those who aren't convinced that frivolous comedy can (and should) be serious business. But it's also a reminder of what star quality adds — and, when absent, what it can subtract. Though York and Borle can't shut down the show's comic engine entirely — no one could — they can stall it just enough to stop the evening from attaining the sublimity of the finest Encores! outings. As it is, however, it's as close as we've seen anywhere lately to musical comedy at its best.
Encores! - Little Me