REVIEW: “Me and My Girl” Fizzes and Froths

REVIEW: “Me and My Girl” Fizzes and Froths

Any musical that features the popping of Champagne in its orchestration is sure to signal good fun ahead.  “Me and My Girl” is as fizzy, frothy, and funny as they come.  Capping the 25th anniversary season of New York City Center’s celebrated Encores! series, this limited run concert offers a shining example of what this annual program does best: reviving musical comedy gems that deserve another look, celebrating the form while also fulfilling an educational mission of ensuring its history is passed on to new generations.

When we think of the British invasion of Broadway in the 1980s, we think of dancing cats, rotating barricades, falling chandeliers, and a helicopter, but alongside those modern blockbusters was the 1986 London transfer production of “Me and My Girl”, a 1980s update of a British musical from 1937 that earned 13 Tony nominations, won three, and ran for three years as the first open-ended show to play at the newly inaugurated Marquis Theatre (its first and perhaps last success).

With a charming if largely forgettable score by Noel Gay (1898-1954)—a prominent British musical comedy composer of the 1930s unknown to most American audiences—“Me and My Girl” set the blueprint for 1992’s more successfully executed “Crazy for You”.  Take an old, lost-to-history musical by a great composer; cut the dated fat and replace with better gems from that composer’s broader catalogue; re-write the book for a modern audience; assemble the best performers in the business; add a splash of tap dancing, et voilà!  You’ve got a hit.  (If only it were ever that simple)

“Me and My Girl” made a smash in London in the 1930s, but never leapt across the pond, probably because of its parochial plot.  Revived on the West End in 1984 under the helm of late-director Mike Ockrent—employing the aforementioned formula—it ran there for eight years.  Attending the concert version adapted by John Weidman now at City Center, it is easy to see why.  The story is oh so fancifully simple, offering the dizzyingly lighthearted escapism of 1930s musical comedy.

Set primarily in the haughty halls of an aristocratic estate in Hampshire, cockney fruit seller Bill Snibson (Christian Borle, a clown atop his game) of Lambeth (London) is discovered to be the rightful, long-lost Earl of Hareford.  However, before he can assume the position and all the land, property, and riches the title affords, he must prove to the estate’s executors (or as he calls them, “executioners”), that he is “fit and proper”, aka one of them.  Another title could be “My Fair Gentleman”.

Ambivalent about the task, he’s joined in the country by his cockney girlfriend Sally Smith (Laura Michelle Kelly, lovely but miscast), as he’s wooed in vain by social climber Lady Jacqueline Carstone (Lisa O’Hare, excellent), herself formerly affianced to the handsome, foppish, but penniless Gerald Bolingbroke (Mark Evans, sublime).  The executors, Maria, Duchess of Dene (Harriet Harris, hilarious) and Sir John Tremayne (Chuck Cooper), chart their own machinations of all these characters, while hiding their unspoken love for one another.  Spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending.

Mr. Borle, a compelling jester, smoothly slides into the role of Snibson with a Graucho Marx-inspired performance reminiscent of his Tony-winning work in “Peter and the Starcatcher”.  It’s a delight to see Ms. Harris back on stage, stealing every scene with her staidly regal accent swallowed by exasperation.  Indeed, comical caricature of British high society abounds across the company, staged and choreographed with characteristic period pizzazz by Warren Carlyle (“Hello, Dolly!”, “After Midnight”), and smartly costumed by Emilio Sosa. 

Following the all-out grandeur of “Grand Hotel”, “Me and My Girl” reverts to the more typical physical appointment of Encores! concerts, with modest, effective settings by Allen Moyer, and, of course, the fabulous Encores! Orchestra center stage, conducted by Music Director Rob Berman.

The Lambeth Walk”, which closes Act I, is a first-rate earworm akin to Bernstein’s “Wrong Note Rag”.  While probably the best known song in the show—clearly well-remembered by audience members who greeted the opening chords with applause—its staging is crowded and surprisingly underwhelming.  However, Mr. Carlyle makes up for it in the rousing, if dramatically inapposite, Act II opener, “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”, featuring Mr. Evans and chorus in a jauntily fast-paced, near-manic dancing frenzy, cleverly summoning vignettes of leisure class activity.  It’s the highlight of the evening.

The plot hinges on an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation of Ms. Kelly’s character that never happens because she’s too refined from the get go.  Such an unforced error is easy to overlook, though, when the very plot it services is so sublimely silly in the first place.  Like last season’s “The New Yorkers” or 2014’s “Lady Be Good”, this is one early musical you sit back and enjoy, for thinking too hard about it will just sour the experience.

Musical comedy has come a long way since 1937 (paging Mr. Sondheim).  One key superlative of Encores! is its demonstration of that progress by way of benchmark.  With 25 years and 75 productions under its belt, I look forward to its future revivals of other musical theatre treasures.

Bottom Line: “Me and My Girl” is a fizzy, frothy, and funny British musical from the 1930s, updated in the 1980s, presented with period pizzazz as part of City Center’s Encores! concert series.  With a fancifully simple story and charming, if forgettable score, this show offers pure lighthearted escapism.  If you’re looking to think, skip it, otherwise, serious musical theatre fans should catch this chance to see a classic.
Me and My Girl
City Center
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019

Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (one intermission)
Remaining Performances:
     Friday, May 11th at 8PM
     Saturday, May 12th at 2PM and 8PM
     Sunday, May 13th at 2PM and 7PM
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