REVIEW: Encores! “Hey, Look Me Over!”
One thing is abundantly clear after attending the kick off concert of the 25th annual Encores! season at City Center: Jerry Herman’s “Mack & Mabel” needs a big, splashy, first-rate revival on Broadway. Now.
Two songs from this overlooked 1974 flop-gem of a musical closed out act one of “Hey, Look Me Over!”, an original concert pulling overtures, songs, and scenes from nine different, lesser-known musicals—and they stole the whole show. As an avowed Herman partisan pre-disposed to enjoy whatever performance would be offered, I was pleasantly surprised that this segment proved to be the most thrilling and best realized of the entire evening.
After a snippet of the fabulous overture, the first ten minutes of the show were brought to life with Douglas Sills (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”, “War Paint”) as film director Mack Sennett and Alexandra Socha (“Spring Awakening”, “Fun Home”) as silent film star Mabel Normand. Mr. Sills, who played Sennett in a 2000 L.A. Reprise! concert production opposite Jane Krakowski, is clearly at ease in the role, his take on the opener, “Movies Were Movies”, polished and considered for a concert with limited rehearsal. Ms. Socha’s rendition of “Look What Happened to Mabel”, a song originated by no less than icon Bernadette Peters, was confidant, unique, and simply rapturous. The bare-bones staging and heavy employment of silent film era touches suggest that stagecraft might finally be catching up to a show once criticized for failing to capture the magic of the movies onstage. More than ever, after that taste, I am convinced that the time for “Mack & Mabel” has finally come.
The rest of the two and a half hour concert was mostly unremarkable. Encores!, which was founded in 1993, has the mission of presenting forgotten American musicals in special concerts that pay tribute to the work and artists who created it by calling upon the greatest performers in the business today to bring these lost gems back to life—with only ten days of rehearsal and limited sets, costumes, and staging.
For this 25th anniversary season, Artistic Director Jack Viertel conceived of “Hey, Look Me Over!” as a special way to honor nine musicals at once—all shows that Encores! has yet to revive as part of their series. Any Encores! fan knows that every season has highs and lows, especially since many of these musicals were flops in the first place, and for good reason. However, “Hey, Look Me Over!” seems to have mined an especially lackluster crop of duds: “Wildcat” (1960), “All American” (1962), “Jamaica” (1957), “Milk and Honey” (1961), “Subways are for Sleeping” (1961), “Greenwillow” (1960), “Sail Away” (1961), and “George M!” (1968), by some of the greatest musical theatre writers: Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, Mel Brooks, Charles Strouse, Lee Adams, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Jerry Herman, Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Frank Loesser, Nöel Coward, and George M. Cohan, among others.
The evening is, as always, supremely entertaining, and despite the fact that multiple concerts have gone on to full Broadway productions (most notably 1996’s “Chicago” concert, which transferred and is now the longest running American musical in Broadway history), the point of the concerts is to honor, lovingly poke fun, and, most importantly, keep alive the history of a cherished art form.
As a clever framing device for this concert, Bob Martin returns as his musical super fan “man in chair” character from “The Drowsy Chaperone” to host the evening (sans chair) as its fictional creator, a role he assumed after writing the artistic director 12 letters complaining about past Encores! seasons, to the last of which Mr. Viertel replied: “fine, you do it”. Mr. Martin is hilarious, just as he was in his 2006 star turn on Broadway, and the star-studded cast including Bebe Neuwirth, Vanessa Williams, Carolee Carmello, Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudisch, Reed Birney, Nancy Opel, and a [spoiler alert] surprise finale cameo by Joel Grey, each take turns masterfully helming musical numbers that are, unfortunately, underwhelming.
In addition to the magnificent “Mack & Mabel” sequence, the other standouts included Clifton Duncan’s gorgeous performance of the epic Frank Loesser ballad “Never Will I Marry” from “Greenwillow” (a lesser Loesser, for sure), Bebe Neuwirth owning the stage like only a star can, with Nöel Coward’s sardonic and witty “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” (originally written for Elaine Stritch) from “Sail Away” (a 30s era musical that seems to have been way past its prime by 1962), and the rousing, tap-dancing closer, “Give My Regards to Broadway” from “George M!”.
The gift that Encores! gives us is a full production of a forgotten musical, not the one or two songs we might hear at a cabaret, sans context. What connects the numbers from these nine musicals, other than Mr. Viertel’s affinity and nostalgia for them (he saw these shows as a child), is not clear, and this lack of cohesion is a missed opportunity to better mark the 25th anniversary of a wonderful concert series that has enriched the New York cultural scene by honoring, celebrating, promoting, and preserving the American musical like no other institution has.
“Hey, Look Me Over!”
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Friday, February 9th at 8 PM
Saturday, February 10th at 2PM and 8PM
Sunday, February 11th at 2PM and 7PM