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Jerry's Girls

Theatre Review by James Wilson - August 7, 2017

Stephanie DÂ’Abruzzo, Christine Pedi,
and Stephanie Umoh
Photo by Russ Rowland

Now that Dolly is back where she belongs, on Broadway and essayed by Bette Midler, it seems fitting to honor Jerry Herman, the composer and lyricist responsible for the show's enduring appeal. Jerry's Girls, the musical revue that had a brief Broadway run beginning in 1985, is currently receiving a stripped-down, bare-bones production as part of the York Theatre Company's Musicals in Mufti series. The appealing show, featuring the talented trio, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Christine Pedi, and Stephanie Umoh, breezily glides through Herman's musical catalogue, and with its abundance of unadorned, unpretentious pleasures this is a refreshing tonic for a midsummer night in New York.

As the program notes explain, Jerry's Girls began as a nightclub revue in 1981, and in 1984 the show was expanded into a full musical production starring Carol Channing, Andrea McArdle, and Leslie Uggams. After an engagement in Palm Beach, Florida, the show toured for several months before concluding its run. A cast recording preserves this version. When a somewhat revised production of the show opened at Broadway's St. James Theatre in December 1985, Uggams remained, and Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera assumed the roles performed by Channing and McArdle.

The original Broadway production lasted a disappointing 144 performances, which was most likely a result of both Frank Rich's damning review and bad luck. Rich likened the show not to the Herman masterworks of Hello, Dolly! and Mame but to the "screechiness and tackiness" of more recent Broadway jukebox shows like Leader of the Pack, the Ellie Greenwich musical, and Peg, the Peggy Lee "musical autobiography." Additionally, Rich was less than enamored with the Broadway triumvirate, writing that the three stars had "strident mannerisms," which he claimed Larry Alford, the director, took "sadistic glee in calling to our attention." And just as the box office was benefitting from a surge in spring ticket sales, Rivera was sidelined with a broken leg from a car accident. The producers announced that they would find a replacement star but then closed the show just two weeks later.

Having seen the original Broadway production, I can state that the show benefits from pruning away at the excesses of Alford's staging and Wayne Cilento's dispensable choreography. There are some things I missed, though, including an 8-member all-women ensemble, who memorably sang a lugubrious "We Need a Little Christmas" while lounging in swimsuits. Rivera in sequined male drag and sporting a mullet while high-kicking her way through a disco rendition of "La Cage aux Folles" left an indelible impression on me as well.

The Mufti version, directed by Pamela Hunt and with musical direction and piano accompaniment by Eric Svejcar, wisely returns the show to its nightclub roots. Undeniably, the star of the evening is, and as should be, Jerry Herman (sorry, girls), and his songs are well served by the singers and musician. That said, the selection of songs does not hold many surprises, and the choices would be familiar to the most casual Herman fans since Dolly, Mame, and La Cage, his biggest hits, are especially well represented. Songs from his financially unsuccessful or lesser-known works such as Mack and Mabel, Dear World, and Milk and Honey are also performed, but there is nothing in this pared down adaptation from The Grand Tour.

Occasionally, projections indicate the original source of the songs, and there are frequently displayed images of the performers who introduced them. Nonetheless, the numbers largely proceed without historical context or thematic linkage. As a result some songs in the parade of ballads and anthems begin to generically blur together.

The highlights in the evening occur, however, when songs are reconceived, rearranged, or are incorporated into medleys. The first act, for example, showcases a "Vaudeville Medley" and concludes with a very funny mock burlesque number, "Take It All Off," which Herman initially wrote for the revue. The second act features a "Movies Medley," which combines songs from Mack and Mabel and his contributions to A Day in Hollywood, a Night in the Ukraine. There is also an amusing amalgamation of advertising and campaign songs that used the title tune from Hello, Dolly. Audience members of a certain age (including this reviewer), for instance, are bound to remember Oscar Meyer's commercial jingle, "Hello, Deli!" from the 1980s.

D'Abruzzo, Pedi, and Umoh generally assume the respective musical tracks of Rivera, Loudon, and Uggams, but there are some reassignments and a few cuts from the original production (including a song from The Grand Tour and material for the excised ensemble). As with all Mufti shows, the cast has less than a week to rehearse the material, so in performance they are on book throughout, and music stands become the singers' appendages. To the credit of the performers and directors, the wheeled music stands are often incorporated into the staging and choreography.

All three women have a chance to shine and bring their unique gifts to the show. D'Abruzzo conveys mischievous charm in her renditions of "Tap Your Troubles Away," "So Long Dearie," and "Look What Happened to Mabel." Perhaps because of the limited preparation time, her belt was somewhat shaky in Herman's songs-of-defiance like "Wherever He Ain't" and "I Don't Want to Know." Still, D'Abruzzo is an engaging stage personality, and I found her campy foil in "Bosom Buddies" bitchily endearing.

Pedi is best known for her work as a mimic of a thousand voices in several editions of Forbidden Broadway and now Spamilton. She is tasked with many of the comic songs, and she certainly delivers. She is particularly funny as an aging stripper ("Hey, lady, please, lady, put it back on!") and as a very pregnant Agnes Gooch in "Gooch's Song." It may be churlish to suggest, but if someone should rewrite the revue, perhaps Pedi could perform one of Dolly's songs employing the voices of the succession of actresses who have played the role?

The revelation of the evening is Umoh. Her voice is a lush, powerful instrument, and she demonstrates tremendous vocal diversity throughout. Her execution of "I Won't Send Roses" is plaintive and lovely; her interpretation of "Kiss Her Now" is full of aching longing; and her "I Am What I Am" is bold and stirring. With no offense to D'Abruzzo and Pedi, I could well imagine a nightclub performance called Jerry's Girl, featuring Umoh as a solo act.

This season's Hello, Dolly! has stoked a mini-Jerry Hermania, and Jerry's Girls offers a modest, yet authoritative, reminder of the additional riches penned by the composer/lyricist. While not everything gleams in this jewel box of a revue, it is worth sampling the treasures anew.

Jerry's Girls
Through August 13
The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter's, 619 Lexington Avenue, entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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