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Encores!: Face the Music

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Meredith Patterson and Jeffry Denman
Photo by Joan Marcus

Depression? What Depression?

In 1932, America was drowning in Prohibition, its citizens were trying to kick away the blues in the wake of the stock market crash, and Broadway was struggling to shed the remaining vestiges of operetta in its pursuit of its own unique sound. But the way all those things unite in the Moss Hart-Irving Berlin musical Face the Music, which is playing through Sunday as part of the City Center Encores! concert series, you'd swear the 1920s were still emitting their trademark deafening roar.

Oh, this mounting, which has been serviceably directed by John Rando, can't match the resplendence of the original production (which featured countless rhinestone-clad chorus girls and a live elephant), more than a few of its jokes creak and sag, and in structure and integration (or lack thereof), it's unquestionably of its era. But despite this, and the joblessness and hopelessness that are integral to Hart's winning but silly book - or at least what adapter David Ives has successfully salvaged - you'd have to be an Olympian-caliber pessimist to not find a good time in it.

And even shows like this one, which all but runs down the tired businessman to get to the exhausted one behind him, knew that you must start with a story ridiculous enough to give the audience something (literally) impossible to believe in. The conceit here: A disreputable Broadway producer plans to use ill-gotten gains to finance a sure-fire flop.

Walter Bobbie and the cast
Photo by Joan Marcus

No, his name's not Max Bialystock, though a few similarities to Mel Brooks's hit The Producers are unavoidable. The con-man showman in question here is Hal Reisman (Walter Bobbie), a down-and-out with a taste for scantily clad women and no other taste to speak of. He doesn't have much faith in his ability to put on a successful show, but he can put on an expensive one - and with the help of two enthusiastic youngsters (Jeffry Denman and Meredith Patterson), a multitalented song-and-dance team (Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull), and of course the police chief backer and his meddlesome wife (Lee Wilkof and the ever-electric Judy Kaye), he gets exactly what's coming to him.

Interspersed with this fast-and-loose, quip-laden backstage saga is plenty of social commentary, ranging from police corruption to a second act that recollects that first Encores! megahit, Chicago: Face the music climaxes in a literal show trial called Investigations of 1932. But all this flirtation with seriousness has about as much bite as flat champagne - when it's not referencing people and events not exactly part of the current cultural vocabulary, it's basically an excuse to get the cast onstage to sing those Berlin tunes.

And what tunes they are! If none are quite up to the level of Berlin's true classics - "God Bless America," "There's No Business Like Show Business," any of dozens of others - they're gently infectious and so riotously tuneful they all sound like they should be established standards. (Much of this is due to the always-on-point Encores! Orchestra, being conducted by Rob Fisher in a guest return to the post he established.)

A rigorous spiritual for Kaye, "If You Believe," makes for a rousing first-act closer; "How Can I Change My Luck?" is a delightful softshoe trio for Bobbie, Mike Masters, and J.D. Webster; and "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," "Castles in Spain (On a Roof in Manhattan)", and "Soft Lights and Sweet Music" are light-catching duets for Denman and Patterson. Just don't ask too many questions, such as what Denman and Patterson or their songs have to do with the show, or why they must spend so many minutes dancing Randy Skinner's twirling but mostly uninspired choreography, and you'll have a grand time watching the whole thing unfold.

Unfortunately, aside from Kaye and Wilkof, who make close personal friends with every one of their myriad one-liners, and Chris Hoch as an irredeemably wooden baritone-for-hire, you don't get a great deal in the way of personality, which is what's always sold shows as slight as this one. Talented as Denman, Patterson, Korbich, and Hull are, they don't exactly glow in their specialty spots here; other one- or two-off appearances from the likes of Kevin Vortmann as a Depression parade leader, Felicia Finley as a torch singer with a Helen Morgan fixation, and Rachel Coloff and Robyn Kramer as an airheaded sister act vanish from your mind almost as soon as they vanish from the stage.

If the fun here is evanescent, it's at least plentiful, and we're getting a rare opportunity to see (and hear) what we might have otherwise been denied. In a Playbill essay, Ives details Encores!'s painstaking recreation of the show's script and score, leading to a result that might not be authentic but is a remarkably convincing educated guess. Such restorations are what Encores! does best, and this fairly faithful Face the Music is better than none at all. Besides, being introduced to a lyric like "The Goulds and Biddles / And the Rockefellers too / Enjoy their griddles / Like the rest of us do" is justification enough for this buoyantly entertaining, if fleeting, evening.

Face the Music
Through April 1
Encores! at City Center, West 55th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Encores! at City Center Main Stage

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