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Hey, Look Me Over!

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 7, 2018

Douglas Sills and Alexandra Socha
Photo by Joan Marcus

Hey, Look Me Over!, a revue celebrating the 25th anniversary of New York City Center Encores!, can best be described by quoting the event's on-stage host Bob Martin, known to inveterate musical theater aficionados as their surrogate, "Man in Chair" from The Drowsy Chaperone. Martin, in his guise as the feckless pundit of obscure and underappreciated musicals, pointedly uses the word "uneven" to encapsulate his overall experience as an Encores! subscriber. That comment, one of several affectionately comic pokes at Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel, applies equally to this production. It is, indeed, uneven, despite the participation by many Broadway notables, among them Bebe Neuwirth, Judy Kuhn, Vanessa Williams, and, making what I am pretty sure is his musical debut, Reed Birney.

So, "uneven" it is. But to be a dedicated Encores! fan is to be willing to buckle up for a roller coaster ride that provides both thrills and misfires as a matter of course. To begin with, we all have our list of shows we'd like to see on the roster of resurrected, semi-staged productions of older Broadway musicals that provide the content for fulfilling the Encores! mission. That's the premise of Hey, Look Me Over!, a "taste" of a number of shows that Viertel and music director Rob Berman (whose own contributions are consistently rock solid) have not gotten around to. It is an absolute given that your enjoyment of Hey, Look Me Over! will be tied to your interest in the eight shows (plus an additional overture) that are being highlighted.

Act I consists of excerpts from Wildcat (1960), All American (1962), Jamaica (1957), Milk and Honey (1961), and Mack and Mabel (1974). Act II opens with the overture (and only the overture) from Subways Are For Sleeping, which, coincidentally, is soon to have a scripts-in-hand concert production as part of the York Theatre's Musicals in Mufti series. The other shows represented are Greenwillow (1960), Sail Away (1961), and George M! (1968). There also is a final uplifting performance, featuring the entire cast singing Irving Berlin's setting of Emma Lazarus's poem, "The New Colossus," that is inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, from the musical Miss Liberty (1949).

The standout excerpt of the evening is Mack and Mabel, thanks especially to Douglas Sills' richly layered performance as Mack Sennett. Sills manages to shine, even within the confines of the one number he gets to sing: "Movies Were Movies." That, plus Alexandra Socha's appealing rendition of "Look What's Happened to Mabel" and enough staging to give us the flavor of the overall show, suggests that what we are seeing might be a preview of a fuller production of the Jerry Herman musical about the tempestuous relationship between the movie director and his star Mabel Normand. Maybe it's wishful thinking, but Mack and Mabel deserves a revisit; if it's considered to be too dark for another go on Broadway, it is certainly the kind of show that is tailor-made for Encores! (You listening, Mr. Viertel?)

Another winner is Frank Loesser's musical fantasy Greenwillow, preserved in memory mostly through the original cast recording featuring Anthony Perkins in the role of Gideon Briggs, a man who is "born to wander ‘til I'm dead." It's a quirky show, no doubt, but the excerpt, featuring Clifton Duncan and Marc Kudisch as Gideon and his prodigal father, more than makes the case for a full-out Encores! production. We are treated to four songs from the show, including the powerful and moving "Never Will I Marry," gorgeously rendered by Mr. Duncan.

Noel Coward's Sail Away always felt old-fashioned (as opposed to "timeless") to me, even when it first appeared. Here, however, Bebe Neuwirth gives a deliciously brassy performance as Mimi Paragon, an American hostess on a British cruise ship. This was the role that rocketed Elaine Stritch to stardom back in the day, and Ms. Neuwirth likewise sinks her teeth into a rousing version of "Why Do the Wrong People Travel."

The other shows represented in the production are of a decidedly lesser caliber. The Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman musical Wildcat produced a single hit, the number which provides the revue with its title, "Hey, Look Me Over." Carolee Carmello performs it with flair but without that much-needed rafter-shaking belting that will get an audience to stand up and cheer. The Charles Strouse/Lee Adams musical All American (with a book by Mel Brooks), gave us the beautiful "Once Upon a Time," which is sweetly performed by Judy Kuhn (and somewhat less sweetly by Reed Birney). But the show itself is clunky and stilted.

Milk and Honey, Jerry Herman's second contribution to the evening, about a group of widows who are on a tour of Israel, has a certain naïve charm. Here it is bolstered by Denis Jones's exuberantly choreographed "Independence Day Hora." But it does seem dreamily dated, even a bit disconcerting when we take into account all that has happened in that part of the world since the show was first produced more than 50 years ago. And while Vanessa Williams, dressed like Lena Horne from the original production of Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg's Jamaica, gives a polished performance of her two numbers from that show, there is inexplicably no introduction or context for us to gauge its potential for a revival. Finally, there is a short take from George M!, a show that features the music of George M. Cohan and one that provides a rousing finale and a delightful surprise to end the evening on a high note before the cast takes us into the Irving Berlin number.

With Hey, Look Me Over!, directed by Marc Bruni, Encores! has given us a brew that includes some thrilling moments, some also-rans, and the perfect host in Bob Martin's "Man in Chair" character. The potpourri of excerpts that make up the revue defies us to discern any logic to its overall shape and form, but if any of the featured shows or performers are on your I-always-wanted-to-see-that list, then by all means head on out to City Center. Otherwise, put on your headset, crank up the old Victrola, and be your own man or woman in chair.

Hey, Look Me Over!
Through February 11
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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