Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
For the past five years, Reprise! has moved closer and closer to fully-staged musical productions, and I have applauded each addition of choreography, costumes, props and set pieces as if it were the parade of animals at the beginning of The Lion King. But the current production of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes demonstrates the downside of attempting to present a full-scale production of a musical on a shoestring budget with only two weeks of rehearsal time. The result is a dully-paced, under-rehearsed production which lacks the giddy charm to which it aspires.
Alice Ripley stars as Lorelei Lee, a woman who, having been born several decades too early for Fox Television, is left to her own devices to find a millionaire to marry. She is not too bright; she knows she really wants a diamond tiara, but has no clue where on the body a tiara is worn. Ripley has some adorable bits relating to Lorelei's ignorance. She kicks up her legs whenever she kisses someone, she always confuses her pronouns, and she can't seem to fan herself with a large feather fan without repeatedly hitting herself in the face with feathers. But little bits of business do not establish a complete character, and Ripley doesn't seem very comfortable in Lorelei's shoes. Nor is she comfortable with her lines; at the performance reviewed, she tripped over several lines, and curiously drew out the words in several others, as though she was trying to remember what to say next. Ripley has a beautiful singing voice, and her rendition of Lorelei's songs, particularly "I'm Just A Little Girl From Little Rock," is the strongest part of her performance. Whenever Lorelei sings, she seems a smarter and more confident character. Had this production not bothered with the book at all, or had they given Ripley adequate time to create a fully-fleshed character, Ripley's Lorelei Lee likely would have been more successful.
The rest of the cast, having more manageable tasks, fare better. And yet, they all could crank up their goofiness a notch. It is as though they acknowledge that Lorelei was supposed to be the eye-catcher of the piece, and nobody wants to outshine her. But the show, about a diamond-loving girl trying to manipulate men to her ends, requires bigger-than-life characters and fast pacing. This production hits those ridiculous comic heights only rarely. Ian Abercrombie, as Sir Francis Beekman, an older lech who thinks he has a chance with Lorelei, sings "It's Delightful Down in Chile" with reckless abandon. Greg Zerkle, playing Josephus Gage, the wrong millionaire for Lorelei, sings his tribute to roughage ("I'm Atingle, I'm Aglow"), with hilarious sincerity. Rod Keller and Jeffrey Schecter also deliver as two incomprehensible French policemen whose fast-talking takes Lorelei, and the entire production, by surprise. But the bulk of the show, although sweet enough, just lacks the speed and comic intensity to be a two-and-half-hour escapist romp.
Near the end of the show, one of the cast members (an underused Ruth Williamson) steps to the edge of the stage and breaks the fourth wall in order to recruit an audience member to take part in the final scene. This is purportedly done to cover a costume change, yet this is difficult to believe, given that the bulk of the costume changes involve only the change of an overskirt or wrap. Once the scene starts up again, the audience member reads his line, the rest of the audience applauds him, and the play ends in less than a minute. The interruption stops dead any momentum the show may have established going into its finale, and in its brief final moments, the cast has no real opportunity to recapture it, leaving the show to end awkwardly.
The orchestra in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is down to eight musicians, certainly the smallest Reprise! has used for a production this year. Although the downsized orchestra does not sound inadequate, it is symptomatic of the overall problem with the production. Reprise! has temporarily lost its way. When their productions still retained the heart of concert musicals, the use of inexpensive costumes and props was a wonderful bonus, and the productions were quaintly charming in their cheapness and lack of polish. But when Reprise! aims broader and unapologetically attempts to deliver a full production, the cheapness simply looks cheap, and the underprepared performers in a badly-paced production are not as easily forgiven.
Reprise! Broadway's Best; Marica Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Ronn Goswick, Managing Director; presents Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Music by Jule Styne; Lyrics by Leo Rubin; Book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields; Adapted from the novel by Anita Loos. Scenic Design Ray Klausen; Costume Design Bill Hargate; Lighting Design Tom Ruzika; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Associate Music Director Steven Smith; Technical Director Peter Falco; Stage Manager Jill Gold; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Press Representative Davidson & Choy Publicity; Book Adaptation by John Bowab & Peter Matz; General Manager Kelly Estrella; Managing Director Ronn Goswick. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Peter Matz; Choreographed by Alan Johnson; Directed by John Bowab.
Lady Phyllis Beekman - Ruth Williamson
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes plays at the Freud Playhouse at UCLA through March 17, 2002. For tickets and information, go to http://www.reprise.org