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Me and My Girl

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 10, 2018

Christian Borle and Laura Michelle Kelly
Photo by Joan Marcus

Has Encores! abandoned its core mission? And, if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? These questions rattled around in my multitasking brain while I was thoroughly enjoying the spritely and highly entertaining production of Me and My Girl that opened last night at City Center.

"Encores! At 25" is the way this season has been touted. Over the past quarter century, the company has offered up some 75 productions of (mostly) rarely revived Broadway shows that are (mostly) worthy of a second look. Its greatest strength has always been an uncanny ability to dig into a variety of dusty archives and come up with the original orchestrations. In keeping with that legacy, Me and My Girl boasts an on-stage orchestra of 27 doing the honors under music director Rob Berman's consistently dependable baton.

Prestige, reputation, and industry connections have allowed the company to attract first-class actors, singers, and dancers willing to commit to an insanely short rehearsal time and a handful of semi-staged scripts-in-hand performances. For some time now, visible and peeked-at scripts have largely disappeared. But with Me and My Girl, Encores! has stepped up every component, giving it as close to a full-scale treatment as you are likely to see this side of Broadway.

It's hard to think of Me and My Girl as a "rare" property. Even though it dates to 1937, the original version (book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber and music by Noel Gay) was later given a facelift by Stephen Fry, with additional contributions by Mike Ockrent, which resulted in a highly successful revival in the 1980s. That updated production ran for eight years in London and three years on Broadway. Robert Lindsay starred in both cities and scored accolades playing the rough-hewn Cockney Bill Snibson, here played by Christian Borle in the full "Groucho Marx" mode he previously set loose with great abandon in his Tony-winning role as Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher.

In the opening scene, Bill is discovered to be the 14th Earl of Hareford. He is immediately swooped up and taken under the wing of his aunt, the Duchess Maria (the always fabulous Harriet Harris). You could call her the "Margaret Dumont" to Borle's "Groucho." Her role here is to whip him into shape so that he can be presentable to his newfound upper crust family and acquaintances. If it all sounds very "Pygmalion," there are, indeed, more than a few references to the Shaw play and to My Fair Lady throughout the evening.

To help maintain the cockeyed spirit is a script that is filled with the sort of puns and jokes that flowed with abandon in the old Marx Brothers films, such as when the seemingly defeated Duchess says, "Usually I buy myself a new hat when I'm down in the dumps," and her friend and long-time suitor Sir John (Chuck Cooper) responds: "So that's where you get them from." There are dozens more where that one came from.

The thin plot focuses on the Duchess' efforts to polish up Bill's noblesse, as well as on the complications involving three separate romances. The most significant of these is Bill's relationship with Sally Smith (a perky and assured Laura Michelle Kelly), the "Girl" of the title. Will Sally be able to join Bill in his posh new life or will she return to their old stomping grounds of the London borough of Lambeth? The second couple is the Duchess and Sir John, a role heartily embraced by Mr. Cooper, especially in his comic scenes involving heavy drinking with Bill. The third couple brings scene-stealing performances by Mark Evans as the lovesick Gerald and Lisa O'Hare as Jacqueline, who temporarily abandons him to go after the soon-to-be-wealthy Bill.

Ms. O'Hare, channeling her inner Jane Krakowski, is a marvelous physical comedienne/femme fatale, who shows up in a different sultry outfit every time we see her. (Emilio Sosa goes all out with the costumes for this production; wait until you see Borle in his George III regalia). For his part, Mr. Evans brings down the house at the start of Act II with the totally wacky and wonderful number "The Sun Has Got His Hat On," which he sings and dances with wigged-out glee, joined by a great ensemble of dancers.

Warren Carlyle, who directs and choreographs, fills every song with crowd-pleasing dancing and clever staging, so that there is never a dull moment. "Leaning on a Lamp Post" is a delight as performed by Mr. Borle, hanging out on a Lambeth street corner in the hopes that Sally will turn up. And, of course, what can you say about the biggest number of all, "The Lambeth Walk," which closes Act I not only by planting that toe-tapping if repetitive tune into our brains, but which leaves the audience floating out for intermission. Meanwhile, Mark Evans' star turn waits in the wings to pump us up all over again when we return to our seats.

All told, Me and My Girl is a feast for the eye and ear, filled with top-notch performances, including that of Don Stephenson as the family's legal advisor, who does a bang-up version of the Gilbert and Sullivan-like song, "The Family Solicitor." While I am a little uneasy about seeing Encores! so totally embracing what appears to be a pre-Broadway approach to things, there are so many pleasures to be found in this champagne bubble of a production, that I'll just say, mission be damned. Just go and enjoy!

Me and My Girl
Through May 13
New York City Center Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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