The Gershwins' 1933 Farce
Pardon My English will always be known as the show the Gershwins would have liked to forget. It was a major problem from its first inception when producers Alex A. Aarons and Vinton Freedley convinced George and Ira Gershwin to write a show for the English music hall star Jack Buchanan. They obtained Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind, two of the best book writers in the business, and the services of radio funny man Jack Pearl for comedy relief. The producers also obtained rising star Lyda Roberti to play a Polish chanteuse. With all of these talents involved how could it fail?
The first big problem was Jack Buchanan. He had to play the dual role of a gangster and an upper crust British noble. He could play the noble part but had great difficulty in playing an underworld thug. The show opened in Philadelphia and was panned by all of the critics. Rather then take it into New York, the producers and writers tried to create a better role for Buchanan. New characters were added, including a song and dance team. Jack Pearl's role was enlarged. The producers tried once again, opening the show in Newark on January 2nd, 1933. The musical just did not work. Jack Buchanan bought out his contract for $20,000 and the producers brought in rising comedian George Givot. It was felt he was just too young for the role. Others were brought in but to no avail. Pardon My English opened in New York to devastating reviews. Critic Gilbert W. Gabriel paraphrased Jack Pearl's famous catch phrase ("Vas You Dere, Sharlie?") as "I was Dere, Sharlie, and I didn't like it." The musical lasted just 46 performances and has gone down in Broadway history as the shortest Broadway run for a Gershwin musical.
Pardon My English has a convoluted plotline that takes place in Dresden, Germany in 1933. It was not the time to present a musical about Germany, as the Nazis were rapidly gaining power. The Nazis are never mention in the farce since the producers were attempting to make fun of American Prohibition. They transferred the play to a German speakeasy where it was verboten to get a non-alcoholic soft drink. (It is interesting to note that on the day the musical closed, someone burned down the Reichstag in Berlin.)
The musical was forgotten until a producer discovered a number of the musical manuscripts in the Warner Brothers music warehouse in Secaucus, New York in 1982. The score was pieced together and it was performed at the Library of Congress. Elektra recorded the musical in 1993 with a cast that included John Cullum and William Katt. City Center Encores! revised the script and presented a sterling concert version in the spring of 2004 with a cast that included Brian d'Arcy James, Emily Skinner and Jennifer Laura Thompson. It was a great success and the production received thumbs up notices.
42nd Street Moon Production is staging the Encores! version with a talented cast of actor/singers and dancers. The script is still very silly with a dizzying assault of bad puns. However, there is an engaging quality about the plot that makes it infectious. It helps to set your mind to the early '30s. The show has some of most crazy characters you are likely to meet in a musical, including a gangster who is constantly being hit in the head and becoming an English Lord or visa versa throughout the whole two-act, 2-hour show. There is an inept police commissioner who runs around like Groucho Marx, a Polish vamp singer, a bookish daughter, and a song and dance couple thrown in for good measure.
George and Ira Gershwin composed a brilliant score and some of the songs have become standards, like "The Lorelei" and "My Cousin in Milwaukee." The lovely "Isn't It a Pity?" is a wonderful example of what the brothers called "rhymed conversation." The bouncy tune "Hail the Happy Couple" turned up later in the Gershwins' Let 'Em Eat Cake under the title "Comes the Revolution." Ira makes fun of the 3/4 waltz melody penned by George in his lyrics for "In Three-Quarter Time" ("Our dogs they have rabies/Our women have babies in three-quarter time").
Director Bobby Weinapple has assembled some excellent singers to present these terrific songs. Tony Panighetti gives a good performance in the dual role of the gangster Golo and the British lord Michael. Tony, who has an excellent voice, is a tad weak on the duets "Isn't It a Pity?" and "Tonight." However, I am sure he has improved through more performances. Rick Williams makes a fine Jack Pearl character as zany Police Commissioner Bauer. He also has good vocal chops singing "So What?" and "Dresden Northwest Mounted." Maureen McVerry vamps it up with her great brassy voice in the two standards "The Lorelei" and "My Cousin in Milwaukee." Her middle-European speaking voice reminds me of Eva Gabor.
Nina Joseph once again shows off her sweet golden voice as the bookish daughter of the commissioner. She is very appealing singing "Isn't It a Pity?" and "So What?." Tom Orr is excellent as Richard Carter, a British twit and friend of Michael. His upper-class British accent is straight out of a Monty Python skit. Mary Kalita gives a good performance as Magda, the dizzy "pulchritudinous parlor maid from Potsdam." Both Orr and Kalita have great moves in their dance routine to "The Luckiest Man in the World." Jason D. McClain gives a zany performance straight out of an early '30s RKO comedy. He does a great rendition of the hilarious "Freud and Jung and Adler" with a fun chorus backing him up.
Chris Macomber, Coley Grundman, Lua Hadar, Brandon Mears, Robin Taylor and Stephen Vaught complete the large cast and all are effective in their roles. Dave Dobrusky does wonderful back up on the piano and Brendan Simon's choreography is lively. Director Bobby Weinapple keeps the pacing tight and the groaning jokes coming fact and furious.
Pardon My English plays through November 5th at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco. For tickets please call 415-255-8207 or online at www.42ndstmoon.org. Next up will be Kander and Ebb's first musical, Flora the Red Menace, opening on November 16 and running through December 5th. Also coming up are Marni Nixon and Stephen Cole in an Evening of Story and Song for one night only on November 10th. This is a benefit for the company also at the Eureka Theatre. Same phone numbers apply.