Broadway Review: CALL ME MADAM (Encores!)

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by Anna Hulkower on February 9, 2019

in Theater-New York


For City Center’s 75th anniversary season, Encores! has revived a show from its second year, Call Me Madam — only the second show it has ever repeated. Irving Berlin’s 1950 star vehicle for Ethel Merman was a smash hit for Encores! in 1995 as a concert starring Tyne Daly (the recording of which is available on CD). In the years since, Encores! has evolved from semi-staged concerts with on-book and out-of-costume actors into polished, fully staged productions. However, rising production values can’t compensate for uneven and dated material.

It’s amazing what critics and audiences alike are willing to forgive when they’re in the presence of a true star. Regardless of some bouncy and hummable Irving Berlin tunes in Call Me Madam, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is basically a dog. Based on Perle Mesta, the millionairess political socialite and renowned party-giver who was awarded ambassadorship to Luxembourg by President Harry Truman, Lindsay and Crouse (State of the UnionThe Sound of Music) created Sally Adams, who is appointed U. S. Ambassadress to the fictional European country of Lichtenburg.

The book is meant to satirize America’s proclivity for loaning millions of clams to countries in need, so Sally offers up her personal stash to finance the penurious country’s annual shindig, and then persuades a trio of politicians to finagle a loan of $100 million, much to the chagrin of her new paramour, the suave Foreign Minister Cosmo Constantine. Unfortunately, any true satire is abandoned for stock sit-com humor, and the jokes feel tired even before they’re repeated for comic effect. So even though Berlin’s score is as charming and tuneful as you’d expect, with a few classic standards like “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” it can’t compensate for the lack of dramatic intrigue — there are no less than three numbers extensively describing different dances (cute choreography by Denis Jones).

Why, then, was it the third most successful musical of the 1950-51 season after The King and I and Guys and Dolls? Two reasons. The star power of La Merman as Sally, and “You’re Just in Love,” an eleven o’clock number that pairs the “Hostess with the Mostess” with her young press attaché Kenneth Gibson, who has fallen in love with Lichtenburg’s Princess Maria. The latter was a moment that, according to Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, “throws a little stardust around the theatre and sets the audience roaring.”  But as directed by Casey Hushion, the same number here didn’t really penetrate the dust that had already settled on the audience.

As Sally, Carmen Cusack is fawning but low-key. She lacks the brash exuberance of her predecessors Merman, Daly, and Elaine Stritch; a show that is built around that kind of personality sags in its absence. She also seemed to be suffering from vocal problems in the middle of the short run, and her usually strong belt seemed muted and strained. Lauren Worsham steals the show as the sheltered Princess Maria, mincing and squeaking around the stage to make the most of her small role. Carol Kane and Darrell Hammond inject a much-needed boost of energy into the end of a second-act cameo as the Grand Duke and Duchess of Lichtenburg.

Overall, Call Me Madam ends up defining the mission statement of Encores! almost too well: an almost-forgotten show worth dusting off and staging with first-class actors and a full orchestra (music direction by the ever-vigilant Rob Berman) — but only for a weekend.

photos by Stephanie Berger

Call Me Madam
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street
ends on February 10, 2019
for tickets, call 212.581.1212 or visit NY City Center

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