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Call Me Madam

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 8, 2019

Jason Gotay and Carmen Cusack
Photo by Stephanie Berger

"Unready" is an adjective I would seldom apply to an Encores! presentation at City Center, at least not in recent years. Seemingly miraculously, with just the tiniest amount of time allotted for rehearsals, the performers and creative team generally have managed to pull off richly conceived and well executed productions of older, rarely-revived Broadway shows. Yet "unready" is how I would describe the current production of Call Me Madam, which comes off like a leaky hot-air balloon bouncing along as it struggles to rise more than a few feet off the ground.

Call Me Madam is decidedly lightweight fare, part mild-mannered political spoof and part romantic comedy from the pen of book writers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and the transposing piano of Irving Berlin. Though far from topnotch Berlin, it does offer a pair of permanent fixtures to the Great American Songbook, "It's A Lovely Day Today" and "You're Just In Love," along with the toe-tapping "Something To Dance About" and a couple of novelty numbers that, in this production at least, are offered up as lovely little bonbons instead of mere throwaways: "The Ocarina" and "They Like Ike."

The show tells the story of a Washington, D. C. socialite, Mrs. Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack) who is appointed to an ambassadorship to the fictional European country of Lichtenburg, where, we are informed, "babies and cheese are our main industries." The political plotline gently pokes fun at America's penchant for throwing money at every problem it encounters, while the romantic comedy has the widowed Sally Adams falling in love with the foreign minister Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis, whose rich baritone singing voice is a highlight of the evening), while her young assistant Kenneth Gibson (a charmingly nerdy Jason Gotay) falls for Princess Maria (a charmingly goofy Lauren Worsham). Fortunately for both Sally and Kenneth, each is met with equal affection by their would-be partners, allowing the love songs to be duets.

Back in 1950, the original production starred Ethel Merman as Sally Adams. Ms. Merman also starred in a film version, and her performance in that movie of "You're Just In Love" opposite her love-sick aide, played by Donald O'Connor, is a classic. Encores! did a previous and well-received revival in 1995, starring Tyne Daly. I didn't see either Merman or Daly, but I did see another brash and effusive performer, Martha Raye, tackle the role in a summer stock production a decade after the original. So, Merman, Daly, and Raye, all of them capable of blasting out their songs and raising the rafters. This kind of performance can cover up a multitude of sins within the thinly plotted musical.

Here, it is Carmen Cusack who is filling Mrs. Adams' designer heels. A wonderful performer in her own right (she was awesome in the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell bluegrass musical Bright Star a couple of seasons back), you can see and hear her struggling to reshape the role to match her acting and singing style. It's not that her performance is boring or incompetent; it is just a forced fit that never catches hold. This is one place where I would apply the term "unready" to this production. With more time, and perhaps with more guidance from director Casey Hushion, Ms. Cusack could very well have found the path to interpret the character in new ways.

But it's not only the star who seems to have been left to her own devices. The same could be said for pretty much the entire cast, including some very well-known performers whose talents are greatly underutilized. Comics Darrell Hammond and Carol Kane manage to pull off a few delightful moments of shtick near the end, but what a waste of talent to be seen in such tiny roles. The funny/quirky spoofster Randy Rainbow, playing a Lichtenburg politico, almost disappears behind his signature pink eyeglasses, while a trio of American legislators, played by Adam Heller, Stanley Wayne Mathis, and Brad Oscar, are generally underused except for their Brush-Up-Your-Shakespeare-like performance of the song "They Like Ike."

Even the dancing, generally a highlight of Encores! musical productions, comes off with mixed results. Choreographer Denis Jones gives us a delightfully wacky "Ocarina" number that is reminiscent of the "Fisch Schlapping Dance" from Spamalot, and he breathes some life into the otherwise lower-drawer Berlin number "The Washington Square Dance." But the bouncy "Something To Dance About," with its mix of many different dance styles, fails to coalesce into a seamless whole. All told, it is another unfortunately "unready" component in an uninspired production.

Encores! has long abandoned simple stagings of musicals in favor of well-wrought productions. This undercooked Call Me Madam, while hardly a disaster, does not live up to its own standards.

Call Me Madam
Through February 10
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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