By Andy Smith
In the finest spirit of reviving under appreciated gems from the past, City Center’s Encores! Series assembled a wonderful cast and put all its musical mastery into this revival – a hit on the road that died on Broadway in 1970. The original production ran little more than a month; City Center’s revival was staged six times between March 30 and April 2.
Seen today, 70, Girls, 70 is a weak show with a few strong numbers and a touching message about America’s indifferent treatment of its elders. Within the show’s limitations, Director/Choreographer Kathleen Marshall did her best to spin straw into gold, as did the outstanding Encores! Orchestra led by musical director Paul Gemignani.
70, Girls, 70 also offered the chance for a great cast of veteran Broadway performers to shine. Olympia Dukakis, Carole Cook, Mary Jo Catlett, Tina Fabrique, George S. Irving, Bob Dishy, Anita Gillette, Charlotte Rae and Mark Price filled major roles and were backed by a great ensemble that included Carleton Carpenter, the lanky MGM musical performer perhaps best known for dueting with Debbie Reynolds in 1950’s “Abba Dabba Honeymoon.”
A Sitcomish Plotline
A sort of musical fusion of The North Avenue Irregulars and Cocoon, 70, Girls, 70 –which added music to a flimsy comedy titled Breath of Spring – takes place in a shabby, genteel residential hotel on the upper west side and focuses on the lives of several senior citizens who live there and two who work in the building’s coffee shop.
It also throws in a favorite Kander & Ebb device – the play within a play, which worked beautifully in the far more substantial Cabaret and Chicago, but just adds a lot of dead weight to this already flimsy caper.
With sitcom predictability, just as the residents learn that their beloved home, Sussex Arms, is going to be torn down, their friend and former resident, Ida, turns up to save the day. Months earlier, a sick and depressed Ida left the hotel to seek medical attention, met with indifference and turned to a life of crime, stealing furs from high-end department stores.
With her zest for life regained, Ida gradually entices the hotel’s despondent senior clan into forming a Robin-Hood style gang, lifting and then fencing furs in an effort to buy the hotel and turn it into a safe haven for the old and unwanted.
Surely the main motivation for reviving this lesser work is the opportunities it offers veteran performers. And, for the most part, the Encores! cast didn’t disappoint.
As the coffee shop waitresses who lose their jobs and turn to a lively life of crime, Catlett (Hello Dolly‘s original Ernestina and the voice of SpongeBob’s driving instructor “Mrs. Puff.”) and Fabrique (Ragtime) are a delight together and shared one of the better numbers, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup.”
Dishy and Gillette – the musical’s love interests, a retired safecracker and his ditzy fiancé – put across a lively number late in Act One. “Do We?” asks the then-daring question: is this older couple having sex before marriage (or at all)?
With her eye-catching hair, copious bling and regal black caftan (which looks like it might have been worn by Lillian Roth in the 1970 production), Carole Cook’s “Gert” comes across more like a small-time agent than the retired Bloomingdale’s security guard she’s supposed to be. That said, this high-powered vet brings Eve-Ardenish zing to many of her lines (Cook’s credits range from Hello Dolly to “The Lucy Show”) and holds her own delivering the revival-style number “See the Light.”
The men have less to do, but the adroit Irving (A Tony® winner for 1973’s revival of Irene) makes the most of “The Caper,” a truly tedious number and probably the show’s worst, while the lively Price (Beauty and the Beast ), the only cast member under 60, is charming throughout.
The one virtue of the play-within-play concept is Lalan Parrott as “Lorraine,” the pianist who both performs with the small Encores! orchestra and takes part in the onstage action, responding on the keyboard when cast members shout “Hit it Lorraine!”
In her Broadway musical debut, Dukakis looks great and hasn’t lost her strong stage presence. However, as Ida, the gang’s ringleader, she spends the entire show clutching her script for dear life, giving more of a reading (and an awkward one at that) than a performance. She also disappoints during “The Elephant Song,” her big musical number, which, to be fair, doesn’t give her much to work with.
Despite strong competition, Charlotte Rae (Mammy Yokum in L’il Abner ) – at 80, girls, 80 – steals every scene she’s in, both as Sadie, the owner of a small fur salon, and during Act II when she teams with Price for the musical’s one real showstopper: “Go Visit Your Grandmother.”
Best known as the dithering Mrs. Garrett on TV’s “The Facts of Life,” the diminutive Rae showed the audience how she held her own against a powerhouse like Bert Lahr in The Beauty Part and commanded the stage as “Mrs. Peachum” in The Threepenny Opera, more than 50 years ago. Rae has played “Ida” in other productions and it’s a shame she didn’t get the chance here.
After the dazzling Kismet, 70, Girls, 70 is quite a letdown, but a noble failure. No doubt May’s production, Of Thee I Sing – the Pulitzer Prize winning depression-era political musical comedy – will end City Center’s season on a strong note.