Thom Caska and Jennifer Evans in a scene from America’s Sweetheart (Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)
Satires of Hollywood have been so plentiful that we forget that there was a time when this was a new genre for both stage and screen. As the concluding concert staging of its 15th season, Musicals Tonight! offers a rare revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1931 musical comedy, America’s
Sweetheart. This turns out to be a fast-paced farce about a the film community with clever and smart songs by the famed duo and a book by Herbert Fields (Annie Get Your Gun, six shows for Cole Porter) with well-drawn personalities, as well as jokes that have dated somewhat. Director Thomas Sabella-Mills has directed with an eye toward character and musical director/vocal arranger James Stenborg (who did the reconstruction for the first revival in New York 1995) accompanies the bouncy, lively and unfamiliar score with a nimble and blithe hand.
America’s Sweetheart is set in Hollywood just on the cusp of the change from silent films to the sound era. Michael Perry and Geraldine March come to silent film Hollywood from St. Paul, Minnesota, naively expecting to become instant movie stars and get married just as soon as they can afford to. At Premiere Pictures, they meet struggling comic actors Madge Farrell and Larry Pitkin, a pair of battling lovers, who take them under their wing. As luck would have it, studio head S.A. Dolan takes a shine to the attractive Gerry and makes her “America’s Sweetheart,” to the detriment of his current squeeze, sexy and jealous French actress Denise Torel who he summarily drops from his affections.
Only able to get extra work all this time while Gerry is climbing the ladder of success, Michael finds he has been cut out of her affections as he is no longer on her star level. However, Gerry has a lisp which is fine during the silent era, but when sound comes in Michael who has no such problem becomes an immediate star while Gerry is all washed up for good. Will the lovers get back together? Will Madge and Larry be able to use their talents to capitalize on the new development? Needless-to-say, as this is a musical comedy, it all ends happily.
Jojo Karlin, Olivia Ercolano and Jenna Dallaco
in a scene from America’s Sweetheart
(Photo credit: Michael Portantiere)
If all this sound vaguely familiar, the plot has been reused countless times since 1931 both on stage in such shows as Fade Out, Fade In (revived twice in New York in recent years) and in Hollywood films such as Singin’ in the Rain. Some of the movie references are still famous names like Chaplin, Winchell and Gloria Swanson, while others like Bill Haines, Delores Del Rio and Adolph Zukor will only be known to film buffs. Many of the jokes can be seen coming a mile away but other business like the studio heads trying to cast Othello as a silent vehicle for Gerry are classic comedy. Sabella-Mills’ directing is tight and fresh while his limited dance numbers (for this concert staging) cast an amused eye on Hollywood formulas such as the Busby Berkeley number.
While the score has no well-known show stoppers, several of the songs ought to be more well-known as Hart’s lyrics are clever and smart, occasionally witty, and Rodgers’ melodies are always catchy. Probably the best song is “I’ve Got Five Dollars,” a Depression ballad, but several of the patter and catalog songs are worth hearing again: “There’s So Much More,” “We’ll Be the Same,” and “How About It.” Among the naughty specialty songs are “A Lady Must Live” and “I Want a Man.” The comic duets include the priceless “You Ain’t Got No Savoir Faire” and “My Sweet (I’m Turning Sour on You).” “Sweet Geraldine” is a lovely ballad while “In Califor-n-i-a” is a rousing production number.
Jennifer Evans as French bombshell Denise Torel lights up the stage every time she appears. Her French accent is straight from Paris and she has a cunning way with a song. As the second bananas Madge and Larry, Molly Pope (of cabaret fame) and Thom Caska (aka associate producer for the StrawHat Auditions) turn their confrontations and shenanigans into stand-up comedy at which they are quite adept. Michael Mahany and Laurie Hymes as rising stars Michael and Geraldine bring a great deal of conviction to these leading roles, though Hymes’ lisp disappears each time each she starts to sing. However, as with many of these old musicals, the supporting cast has the best material. Kate Marilley and Tessa Faye bring pizzazz to their roles as Paula and Dorith, two unemployed actresses trying to find ways to break into show business. Robin Haynes has a breezy style as studio chief Dolan. As his secretary Miss Mulligan, Jojo Karlin is delightful as one of those screechy voiced underlings who often lose their cool.
Though Rodgers and Hart’s America’s Sweetheart is not up to the standard of their Pal Joey or The
from Syracuse, it has its charms. While the material is now a period piece, Thomas Sabella-Mills’ production is always lively and the vivacious cast makes these characters more three-dimensional than they have any right to be. This is also a rare chance to see and hear a Rodgers and Hart show not filmed by Hollywood and being offered now in only its second New York revival in 83 years.
America’s Sweetheart (through April 13, 2014)
Musicals Tonight! at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-560-2186 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours and 35 minutes with one intermission