Los Angeles Theater Review: LITTLE ME (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on April 24, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles

HOW THE HELL DO THEY DO IT?

Ah, celebrity. If you think that the headlining of television stars in Broadway musicals is a new phenomenon, check out the action in the early 1960s: brassy redhead Lucille Ball took to the oilfields when she bankrolled Wildcat while, two weeks later, top banana Phil Silvers topped the bill in Do Re Mi. In 1962, while Broadway audiences were well fed by two of the longest-titled musicals of all time – A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying – Sid Caesar took to the boards in Little Me, which the Musical Theatre Guild (MTG) recently brought to life at the Alex Theatre.

Instead of striking oil, Wildcat received a gusher of unfavorable notices – plus, leading lady Lucy suffered from exhaustion, so that explains why the show shuttered after 171 perfs. But the critics basically fawned over Do Re Mi and Little Me; they forgave the hackneyed books because they laughed all the way to their typewriters. So, what explains why the Broadway producers never went laughing to the bank? Perhaps, once the novelty of superstardom wore off, it was clear to audiences that Me and Mi suffered from uneven books and few songs of note. (Regardless of the headliners, theatregoers were far more loyal to well-written shows: remember, the money kept pouring in after Zero left Fiddler, Carol left Dolly, and Angela left Mame.)

What theatre aficionado wouldn’t love the opportunity to see why these shows are rarely produced? Only so much can be culled from autobiographies and reviews. Was it the star? Was it the time? Was it the book? Well, look no more, lucky, lucky Los Angelenos, for MTG continues to produce the highest quality concert productions of Broadway musicals which have rarely seen the spotlight of day. With only 25 hours of rehearsal, the best musical talent in the land presents a fully-staged musical with scripts in hand (as specified by the Actor’s Equity Concert Staged Reading code), but the numbers are memorized, choreographed and backed up by an orchestra.

MTG already took on Do Re Mi in 2005; now, Little Me has just been given a rollicking good production, highlighting how this astounding company, guided by the wizardly direction of Todd Nielsen, can wring every drop of fun from a thorny libretto. Based on fictional memoirs by Patrick Dennis, Neil Simon’s book follows the story of accident-prone Hollywood star Belle Poitrine as she rises from poverty to “wealth, culture, and position in society” – something she longed to do since falling in love with upper class, 16 year-old Noble Eggleston in Venezuela, Illinois. Belle, whose name means “beautiful chest,” finds what she’s looking for with a series of willing gentlemen (a husband, a director, a Prince, etc.), all of whom are played by one man – the Sid Caesar role.

This “musical satire” has only two songs of renown: “Real Live Girl” and “I’ve Got Your Number.” The previous outing by composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh happened to be Wildcat, which contained one hit (which was a biggie): “Hey, Look Me Over.” Book writer Neil Simon had only one previous Broadway run with Come Blow Your Horn, but he had worked with Caesar on Your Show Of Shows, and tailor-made Little Me for the great comedian. Instead of using Belle as the central focus, the comic antics of the multi-faceted Caesar became the raison d’etre of the show. Thus, the book feels like a series of set-ups for Caesar’s talents – even with MTG’s superior abilities, the evening, although funny, becomes a bit wearisome as the story takes a back seat to a sequence of sketches (two Broadway revivals of Little Me, one with Martin Short (1998), also did not do well).

Simon explained the problem with the book in his memoir Rewrites: he reports eavesdropping on one couple who loved it, and another who hated it so much that they walked out at intermission. “Both were right,” says Simon. “We were both farcical and theatrical at the same time. We told the audience that Noble and Belle really loved each other, but neither the writers nor actors nor directors really believed it. We were asking the audience to accept what we ourselves were making fun of. It was a good joke, but still a joke, and it’s hard to maintain a joke for two and a quarter hours.”

MTG DO RE MI The MTG production of Do Re Mi

Therefore, Little Me desperately needs Sid Caesar. Yet, MTG’s production won us over by mining plenty of laughs from dubious material. The highly-talented company not only maintained the “joke,” but with consummate goofball Jason Graae (pronounced GRAH) as Noble, et al, the show was a sheer delight (although Little Me was a little long, clocking in at well over three hours). Graae is so dexterous with his many characters – breaking the fourth wall with aplomb – that he should be the first one considered if they ever do Sybil: The Musical. The other guest artist, lithe lothario Robert Pieranunzi knocked ‘em dead with “I’ve Got Your Number.”

The show is a series of flashbacks, as Older Belle (Eileen Barnett) relates her exploits to Patrick Dennis (John Racca). With martini or tennis racquet in hand, Barnett nails the sultry broad (but, then again, so do many of the fictional men). As the younger Belle, Jennifer Malenke shows backbone and buoyancy, adding a vulnerability to her sweet voice. Roy Leake, Jr. and Joe Hart are delightful as the sibling producers who bankroll Belle in stage and cinema.

MTG made this highly imperfect show quite entertaining, but you should see what they do with a perfect show – their version of Loesser’s The Most Happy Fella trounced the Broadway revival to smithereens. Their final show this season is Bat Boy The Musical.

You are strongly encouraged to subscribe to MTG’s next season; the company is a Los Angeles treasure – watch as they pull an enormous rabbit out of their hat by magically raising shows from the dead with just one weekend of rehearsals. Since they usually perform for one night only, the audiences are both fans and friends alike.

Their 16th season of Broadway-in-Concert includes:

MTG High FidelityHigh Fidelity: Based primarily on the Nick Hornby novel (rather than the subsequent film version it inspired), the story concerns Rob, a quirky record shop owner who, after his girlfriend Laura leaves him, goes through a re-evaluation of his life. With a book by David Lindsay-Abaire (2007 Pulitzer Prize for Rabbit Hole), score by Tom Kitt (2010 Pulitzer Prize for Next To Normal) and lyrics by Amanda Green (daughter of Adolph Green, lyricist of Do Re Mi – very “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”), High Fidelity closed after only 14 performances.

Fanny: Isn’t it time that you found out who Harold Rome is? OK, he’s the guy who wrote I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962), which included “Miss Marmelstein,” the song that catapulted Barbra Streisand into Broadway stardom, but he also wrote Fanny, the bittersweet story of love, secrets and star-crossed young lovers on the Marseilles waterfront. Based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays (Marius, Fanny and César), it opened in 1954 with Florence Henderson and Ezio Pinza in leading roles and ran for 888 performances.

MTG Little Women Little Women: The recipient of four 2005 Tony® nominations, this version of the classic story follows the March sisters in Civil War Massachusetts as their father is away serving in the Union army. The Great White Way production (which starred Broadway darling Sutton Foster) closed after 134 performances, but community theatres love staging this maybe-too-sweet musical. I’d much rather see what MTG does with it.

A New Brain: A must-see! William Finn’s semi-autobiographical account of how he made the most out of life in the face of a harrowing major illness. First produced at Lincoln Center with Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth, Penny Fuller and Chip Zien, Finn hit a home run with this smart, funny, uplifting, melodious and vibrant score. With a book by James Lapine, who teamed with Finn on the Tony®-winning Falsettos, I’m dying to find out why this memorable score is rarely produced.

MTG ShenandoahShenandoah: After listening to the original cast album hundreds of times, I finally caught this show at Ford’s Theatre in D.C. with Scott Bakula. The story follows Charlie Anderson, a pacifist Southerner in Civil War Virginia who is forced into action when his youngest son is taken prisoner; it is an odd blend of musical comedy and heavy drama (unless you consider murder and rape musical comedy fare). Nonetheless, it contains a rousing score, and 1975 audiences flocked to Shenandoah, which ran for 1,050 performances, winning best book of a musical Tony® Award (best score went to The Wiz) and best actor for John Cullum, solidifying his leading man status.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

Little Me
Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre, Glendale
Performed once on April 18, 2011
http://www.musicaltheatreguild.com 818.848.6844
For Tickets: http://www.alextheatre.org or 818.243.ALEX

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

B. Buchsbaum September 20, 2011 at 1:16 am

Dear GOD, this reviewer is intelligent – AND has impeccable taste!

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