The Siegel Column

Girl Crazy started the Encores season with a bang!

Encores did itself proud with its recent production of Girl Crazy. Its loving recreation of the 1930 George and Ira Gershwin musical (with book by Guy Bolton and Jack McGowan) was a tribute to the talent of its original creators and a reminder to contemporary audiences that Broadway musicals are, and always have been, a rare and special art form.

Girl Crazy is a musical steeped in lore. It was the show that introduced twenty-one-year-old Ethel Merman to Broadway in which she famously held the "I" in "I've Got Rhythm" for sixteen measures, prompting the oft-repeated joke that she could hold a note longer than Chase Manhattan. The show also featured nineteen-year-old Ginger Rogers in her second Broadway show. And down in the Girl Crazy orchestra pit was the future of popular big band music in the 1930s and 1940s, thanks to the presence of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and Gene Krupa. Finally, though, what made Girl Crazy successful in 1930 and what made it a worthy choice for Encores in 2009 was the show's hit-strewn score. In addition to "I've Got Rhythm," the musical also features "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me," plus plenty of other memorable tunes.

This City Center production did not rely on discovering new talent like Merman and Rogers, but rather it did as Encores often does, it pumped up the cast to include a plethora of proven star talents to turn an already audience-friendly score into a must-see event. In the leads were TV stars Chris Diamantopoulos (Danny Churchill), Becki Newton (Molly Gray) and Wayne Knight (Gieber Goldfarb). Among the cast's theater stars were Ana Gasteyer (Frisco Kate Follicle) and Marc Kudisch (Slick Follicle). Happily, even the TV stars had plenty of musical theater credits to justify their employ in this plum production.

Diamantopoulos was charming and wonderfully breezy as the show's male lead; his voice was strong and he moved exceedingly well. His love interest Ms. Newton (in the Ginger Rogers role) was brashly sexy and engaging. Knight was well cast in the comedy role originally played by Willie Howard and got most of the show's much deserved laughs (nicely abetted by David Ives' carefully revised book). Kudisch displayed his trademark comic chops and danced exceedingly well, while Gasteyer, playing the role made famous by Merman, not only held her own but put her own specific physical and vocal stamp on the role, belting and holding her notes long enough for Chase Manhattan to find itself invoked yet again, 79 years later.

The entire production was lifted by conductor Rob Fisher and the Encores Orchestra, and further enhanced by the zesty choreography provided by Warren Carlyle who had a large and talented ensemble with which to work. Finally, director Jerry Zaks, playfully embraced the silliness of the piece and pulled all of these disparate talents together to stage Girl Crazy with considerable style, letting us see the wonderful entertainment that was eventually repackaged into yet another hit Broadway show, Crazy For You. No doubt, somewhere down the road, that show will also get the Encores treatment—and that once and future audience will be just as grateful for the chance to revisit these great Gershwin tunes.

Brief Takes on Other Recent Openings ...

Dreamgirls has a dream production at The Apollo

With the intent of launching a national tour with a brand new production that recently opened at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, this new Dreamgirls is, in fact, a dream come true. Moya Angela has made her New York debut in the role of Effie, and—no question about it—a star has been born! She is surrounded by a stellar cast that includes the electric Chester Gregory as James "Thunder" Early, the sensational Syesha Mercado as Deena, and the smashing Adrienne Warren as Lorrell. Robert Longbottom has choreographed and directed this revival with so much panache that one can only wish that it makes it national rounds quickly and gets back to New York—and Broadway—as soon as possible. Simply put, if this production was on Broadway right now, it would be the favorite so far for the Best Musical Revival Tony Award.

Post No Bills is a play with music that features a great big performance

Down at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater there is an engaging and entertaining new show that is somewhat conventional in structure but nonetheless fierce in execution. It is the story of a middle-aged subway musician who once was a star in Texas, now down both on his luck and on himself, who reluctantly befriends a young Texas runaway and helps her find her way as a musician. It is not a love story in the traditional sense but it is a love story nonetheless. Well-written by Mando Alvarado and brilliantly directed by Michael Ray Escamilla, the show has a smooth, musical underpinning provided by two singer/guitarists who sit just off the stage, plus it features four strong actors, including an exciting Off-Broadway debut by the show's female star, Audrey Esparza—see her now, she's going places.

On the subject of wonderful performances: Laura Benanti in In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play

With a Tony Award to her credit from her breakout performance in Patti LuPone's Gypsy, Laura Benanti has fully come in to her own as a brilliant comic actress. Her performance in Sarah Ruhl's new play at the Lyceum Theatre is original, hilarious and utterly captivating. This Lincoln Center production is, in all respects, a glorious production, with Benanti the cherry on top of a delicious piece of cake. The superb cast includes Michael Cerveris, Chandler Williams, Maria Dizzia, Wendy Rich Stetson, Thomas Jay Ryan and Quincy Tyler Bernstine. In fact, every element in this show shines, from the smart lighting design by Russell H. Champa, to the exhilarating set design by Annie Smart and the glittering costumes by David Zinn. Oddly enough, the only thing that's a little bit wanting is the play itself, which pretends to be more profound than it really is. The show is funny and entertaining—don't get us wrong—but everything about this stellar production is so well done that it will make you think you're seeing a great play. Not so; it's just a great production.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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