REVIEW: Encores! “Call Me Madam” with Carmen Cusack
New York City Center’s now-beloved Encores! series of annual staged concerts of overlooked musicals from the American canon got off to a rough start. Though a hit with critics and audiences, it wasn’t making the money needed to ensure future seasons.
That was until season two, which kicked off in 1995 with the first New York revival of “Call Me Madam” (1950) starring Tyne Daly. The rest, as they say, is history.
As City Center celebrates its 75th anniversary as an arts institution, this year’s Encores! series begins with a revival of its landmark revival of “Call Me Madam”—a tribute to the show that put this Tony Award-winning series on the map and ensured it could continue since.
With a swinging score by Irving Berlin and a witty book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, “Call Me Madam” was devised as a topical piece of light satirical fare, tailored to the talents of legendary leading lady Ethel Merman.
Inspired by the true story of Washington socialite Perle Mesta’s plum appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Truman, the thinly-veiled “lifted from the headlines” musical follows Oklahoma oil heiress cum D.C. doyenne Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack, “Bright Star”)—“The Hostess with the Mostes’ On the Ball”—after her appointment as U.S. Ambassador to the fictional Duchy of Lichtenburg.
The decidedly undiplomatic—and presumably single—Mrs. Adams arrives in the tiny country that boasts “babies and cheese” as its main industries, and soon charms Foreign Minister Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis) with her twang. The “B-plot” follows Adams’ upstart political aide Kenneth Gibson (Jason Gotay) in his forbidden romance with Princess Maria (Lauren Worsham), inspiring the contrapuntal duet “You’re Just in Love”—the most famous tune from the show.
There’s a contrived and needlessly complicated diplomatic conflict involving the Prime Minister Sebastian Sebastian (Randy Rainbow, for some baffling reason sporting his signature pink cat eye glasses) and a loan of $100M in foreign aid, and a bizarre cameo by Duke Otto (Darrell Hammond) and Duchess Sophoe (Carole Kane) late in act two, but both are beside the point.
Even in 1950, “Call Me Madam” was a creature of an earlier age of pseudo-revue musicals light on plot, in which skit-like scenes only serve to tee up the next song. Its politics are distinctly topical, with a running gag involving telephone calls from President Truman to Ambassador Adams, sharing the latest bad reviews of his singing daughter, Margaret’s concert tour.
An act two “in one” number by Senator Gallagher (Brad Oscar), Senator Brockbank (Stanley Wayne Mathis), and Congressman Wilkins (Adam Heller)—“They Like Ike”—opines about General Dwight Eisenhower’s chances in the upcoming 1952 presidential election. (spoiler alert: he wins)
“Call Me Madam” was Berlin’s second greatest hit musical, after “Annie Get Your Gun” (1946), and the last major work he’d pen. But for “Mr. President”, a spectacular flop from 1962, Berlin slipped into a reclusive retirement that lasted almost forty years—keenly sensing that amid the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, his style had gone out of style.
His style, though—a distinctive sound that formed the very backbone of the American Songbook—is well-worth revisiting.
As Sally Adams, Ms. Cusack—sporting a glorious wig and a knockout series of costumes by Jen Caprio—is glamorous and goofy, channeling the musical comedy stylings of Donna Murphy, and has never sounded better in song after song designed for Ethel Merman’s famous belt. She’s an unqualified star who needs her own vehicle next. The supporting cast of principals is strong, too, most notably Mr. Gotay and Ms. Worsham.
As always, the fabulous Encores! Orchestra takes center stage, conducted by Music Director Rob Berman. And choreographer Denis Jones (“Tootsie”, “Holiday Inn”) provides some playful and clever dances for the ensemble of twenty.
“Call Me Madam”, given a simple but well-performed production under the direction of Casey Hushion, is Encores! at its truest: a concert revival of a classic musical that would not otherwise be seen on stage again. Next up in the season is Rodgers and Hart’s 1938 musical “I Married an Angel” (March 20-24) and Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s rarely seen 1947 musical “High Button Shoes” (May 8-12).
Bottom Line: Carmen Cusack shines in Encores! revival of its 1995 landmark revival of Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam” (1950), originally written as a vehicle for Ethel Merman. A topical piece of light satirical fare that’s more about comedy and songs than plot, this simple but well-performed production is Encores! at its truest: a concert revival of a classic musical that would not otherwise be seen on stage again.
“Call Me Madam”
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Thursday, February 7th at 7:30PM
Friday, February 8th at 8PM
Saturday, February 9th at 2PM and 8PM
Sunday, February 10th at 2PM and 7PM