Call Me Madam and
A change has taken place at "Reprise!" The series that used to call itself "Broadway's Best in Concert" is now simply subtitled, "Broadway's Best." Inaugurating the new name is a production of Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam that is worthy of the decision to drop the "in concert."
Don't get me wrong. Like all Reprise! productions, Call Me Madam is certainly not overflowing with magic chandeliers, flying helicopters, giraffes on stilts ... or even chairs, when you get right down to it. Indeed, if memory serves, this is the barest set Reprise! has ever used. But the presence of an eleven-member ensemble, professionally delivering several dance numbers -- combined with the fact that the company was (with one exception, discussed below) entirely off- book -- made this much more than simply a concert version of the musical.
That said, though, all of this is just icing on the cake. Reprise! is about getting good people to sing quality scores that aren't frequently revived. In that all-important department, Call Me Madam scores.
The cast is led by Karen Morrow as Mrs. Sally Adams, the Washington party hostess appointed Ambassador to tiny Lichtenburg. The role was created for Ethel Merman, and Morrow delivers the songs with a great combination of voice and attitude.
The plot is a basic "girl meets boy" story. In Call Me Madam, the boy for Sally Adams is Cosmo Constantine, a Lichtenburg politician, here played by Michael Nouri. Nouri has a lovely voice, and plays the romantic lead with just enough formal dignity to counterbalance Morrow's straight-forward Sally Adams.
The real surprises here are the second bananas. Hugh Panaro, as Sally's young assistant, Kenneth, and Melissa Dye, as Lichtenburg's Princess Maria, are simply wonderful, and work together beautifully. Even in the context of this concededly corny plot, there is real chemistry between Panaro's eager Kenneth and Dye's charming Maria.
Again, though, the voices are what matters. Panaro shares the Irving Berlin classic, "You're Just in Love" with Morrow, and certainly holds up his end. As a matter of fact, the two are evenly matched vocally, and the end result is immensely satisfying.
Another high point of the show is the second-act scene-stealer, "I Like Ike," led by Michael Tucci as the gravel-voiced Republican Congressman. The song is adorable, and Tucci makes the most of every little dance step.
This production is not without its weaknesses. Morrow, despite her spot-on execution of the songs, is somewhat less effective in the book scenes. Her comic delivery is in the style of Carol Burnett, but she doesn't have enough oomph to really nail the jokes. Nor is there much of a spark between Morrow and Nouri. But, these are flaws in the less-important elements of the show, and don't really make it any less enjoyable.
The bottom line is that this Call Me Madam is highly enjoyable, to the point where missed laughs detract as little as the minimal set. Indeed, the shoestring quality of the production adds to the light entertainment of this trip to the theatre. The costumes, designed by Noel Taylor, are a model of efficiency. Short black evening dresses at Sally's Washington parties become Lichtenburg peasant frocks with the addition of aprons. Noticing how Sally's evening dress becomes three others is all part of the fun.
Last Sunday the audience's good humor was pushed to the limit, however, by the production's failure to have understudies for any roles beyond the four leads. The role of the show's antagonist, Sebastian Sebastian, usually played by Paul Keith, was filled by John Bowab, the show's director. Bowab carried a script throughout, did not act his lines at all, and still managed to get half of them wrong. He had the good sense to be self-mocking about it, and the audience let him off the hook for what could have been cause to storm the box office and demand a refund. Memo to artistic director Marcia Seligson: Along with dropping the phrase "in concert" comes the responsibility to deliver productions fully stocked with prepared actors. Reprise! has a relationship with UCLA, and should be able to find some students eager to be swing understudies for its productions. There is no doubt that a theatre student who had learned the script and sat in on rehearsals could have done a better job filling in than the director did. John Bowab's bungled script-reading could have been disastrous, in a production of less overall quality than this Call Me Madam.
Call Me Madam runs through September 24.
Reprise! Broadway's Best, Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director, Ronn Goswick, Managing Director, presents Call Me Madam. Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, concert adaptation by Charles Repole and Bill Russell, created for City Center Encores! Scenic designer Ray Clausen, costume designer Noel Taylor, lighting designer Tom Ruzika, Sound designer Philip G. Allen. Produced by Marcia Seligson, music direction by Peter Matz, choreography by Alan Johnson, directed by John Bowab.
Ben Elton's Olivier Award-winning play, Popcorn, tells the story of an ultra violent film director who is taken hostage in his home by a pair of serial murderers like those celebrated in his films. It is a comedy.
It is, actually, more than a comedy. Popcorn also raises serious issues regarding our society's glorification of violence, and our willingness to assign blame for criminal activity to anyone but the criminal. The ideas are thought- provoking, though not entirely groundbreaking. The success of the play depends on its ability to keep its comedy and its conscience together. The trick here is to get us to laugh, and then be ashamed that we were laughing. The current incarnation at the El Portal Center for the Arts, in North Hollywood, Popcorn is not successful at achieving this balance.
The problem, it appears, is that the people on stage do not seem to be in agreement as to the nature of the piece. The play is dominated by David Faustino as Wayne, one of the notorious "mall murderers." Faustino plays Wayne straight, and the choice works. While there is occasional humor in Wayne's dialogue, Faustino never lets you forget that Wayne is a killer with his finger on the trigger. Faustino's portrayal effectively walks the line between calculated violence and random brutality.
At his side is Jill Marie Simon as Scout, Wayne's "trailer trash" girfriend and partner "mall murderer." Simon paints Scout with a broad brush. She gives Scout the pigeon-toed stance of a shy four-year-old, leading one to question whether she even has the motor coordination to hold a gun. Scout's lines indicate that she is well-capable of polysyllabic speech, but her manner contradicts this. She is, in short, a caricature of the dumb girlfriend who gets turned on by the killings, and she doesn't fit in the same play as Faustino's Wayne.
The rest of the cast supports neither interpretation. Maxwell Caulfield plays Bruce, the film director. The character is obviously modelled after Quentin Tarantino, but Caulfield supplies none of Tarantino's boyish enthusiasm. Numerous interpretations of Bruce might have been convincing, but Caulfield's underplayed restraint does not comfortably share the stage with either Faustino's realistic edginess or Simon's over-the-top dimwittedness.
It goes on. The climactic scene of the play appears to be written as farce. The comedy reaches a lunatic pitch, and two half-naked characters (requisite for farce) make their appearance. In this mix, Julie Cobb, playing Bruce's soon-to-be-ex-wife Farrah, has one ridiculous line after another: She cares more about how the hostage situation will affect her property settlement than her life; and when her daughter (played by Cobb's real-life daughter, Rosemary Morgan) is threatened with a blow to the face, Farrah pleads, "Not the nose; it's new!" Even the most self-centered person would not say these lines in reality; they can work only in farce. But the scene is not directed as farce, and Cobb's attempts to send these lines out of the mouth of a real person in a real situation fall painfully flat. At this point in the play, one wonders whether Simon didn't have the right idea after all. The material here is funny; it cries out for bigger-than-life execution and fast pacing. It gets neither in this production.
Before the play began, the house manager walked on stage and delivered a speech inviting the audience to accept the play with an open mind. He gave us a theatrical history lesson, identifying plays that were originally rejected by audiences and critics for their unconventional subject matter, but were subsequently recognized as classics. He assured us of his belief that Popcorn would someday join this pantheon. Such pretentiousness proved woefully unjustified. Popcorn might be a good play, it might even be a disturbing play, but it is not an earth-shattering play. The El Portal should recognize the more likely possibility that the lukewarm reaction to its production of Popcorn is not due to any explosive message of the play, but its misfire of a production.
Popcorn runs through October 1.
The El Portal Center for the Arts, Jeremiah Morris, Artistic Director, presents Popcorn. Written by Ben Elton; directed by Jeremiah Morris; set design by Bob Gruber; lighting design by Jim Moody; costume design by Pat Naderhoff; sound design by Steve Shaw; props by Kim Compeau; production stage manager Dana Craig.