Seven years later in 1940, both he and composer/lyricist Irving Berlin (his collaborator on The Cocoanuts) returned to Broadway with Louisiana Purchase, inspired by the career of demagogue and candidate for president Huey Long who had been assassinated in New Orleans in 1935. This uncharacteristically risqué and witty Berlin musical about political corruption in the mythical city of New Orleans (not seen locally since 1996) has been given a sharp, fast-paced revival by Musicals Tonight! Credit director/choreographer Donald Brenner with making this 77-year-old musical comedy look spanking new with his well-cast and accomplished production.
Based on a story by lyricist/bookwriter/producer B.G. DeSylva (“Good News,” “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “The Varsity Drag”), this musical satire sends unworldly, teetotaler Oliver P. Loganberry, “the Watchdog of the Senate,” to New Orleans to investigate the corrupt dealings of the Louisiana Purchasing Company run by Jimmy Taylor, Colonel Davis, Junior Davis, Dean Manning of the university, and Captain Whitfield of the city government. Jimmy, the president of the company, who was out of town when the others used his powers of attorney for their illegal scheme, is left to sort out the mess.
He attempts to distract the senator first with Marina, a beautiful Viennese refugee, then Beatrice, a sexy entertainer, and finally with Madame Bordelaise, very French owner of New Orleans’ best restaurant, Bordelaise’s Sidewalk Café. Loganberry drinks for the first time, ends up engaged to two women, and is finally rescued from his predicament. Along the way, Jimmy falls in love with Marina, and Lee David and his fiancée Emmy Lou lament the fact that they can’t get married if all their Davis relatives are in jail. Mardi Gras makes an appearance with an elaborate masked ball.
The integrated score also has a clever prologue: DeSylva’s lawyer writes to him in verse warning him that “There are laws./ Laws that specifically say/You can’t write a book or a play/Based on characters living today.” However, he advises him that “You can call a crook a crook – But you must say, ‘It’s based on fiction.’” Still everyone will know who you mean! The show opens with the chorus informing us that the show is entirely “mythical.” Berlin’s songs include the unusually off-color and earthy songs (for him) “Sex Marches On,” “It’ll Come to You,” and “Latins Know How,” all of which suggest Cole Porter rather than the man who wrote “God Bless America.” Other unfamiliar songs, both romantic and anti-romantic, include “Outside of That, I Love You,” “You’re Lonely and I’m Lonely,” “You Can’t Brush Me Off,” “Fools Fall in Love” and the plaintive, “What Chance Have I with Love?” The varied score also includes the jazzy title song and the spiritual, “The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul.” A more characteristic Berlin song is “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow,” reminiscent of the later “It’s a Lovely Day Today” in his Call Me Madam ten years later.
The original cast featured four stage stars: the comedy team of William Gaxton (Jim Taylor) and Victor Moore (the senator) in the fifth of their seven stage teamings, French singing star Irene Bordoni as Mme. Bordelaise, and as Marina, Norwegian dancer Vera Zorina, then married to George Ballanchine who created the ballets for the show. In the revival cast, Broadway veteran Bethe B. Austin (Whoopee, Onward Victoria, Raggedy Ann) is a very Gallic and provocative Mme. Bordelaise. As the honest but cynical Senator Loganberry, Michael J. Farina, also a Broadway veteran of My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, and Seussical, is a very endearing naïf in a role for a stage comic.
Balancing him is Morgan McCann’s slick and devious Jim Taylor who personally keeps the plot going. As Marina van Linden, Elisabeth Evans makes a lovely transition from the frumpy refugee to the seductress who vamps the senator. Charles Rubey as the corrupt Dean Manning makes the most of the low comic scenes. Tony Triano, Michael Fasano, and Jay Paranada join Rubey in making very slimy villains. Kristin Wetherington as the seductive Beatrice commands the stage with her renditions of the title song and “The Lord Done Fixed Up My Soul.”
While Brenner’s varied choreography turns many of the songs into accomplished production numbers, Lilly Tobin and Corey Desjardins as the singing and dancing team of Emmy Lou and Lee Davis impress the most with their tap dancing and soft-shoe number, “You Can’t Brush Me Off.” While the original show had two Quartets as back-up, the Buccaneers and the Martins, Sam Beasley, Thom Brown III, Colleen Grate and Staci Jo Johnston do yeoman service as the Quartet backing up nine of the song and dance numbers.
Music director and vocal arranger James Stenborg at the piano keeps the unfamiliar syncopated score light and bouncy. Courtney Butt is responsible for the attractive and colorful period costumes. The unit set by Devin Vogel works well throughout the evening. Considering that the political satire is three generations old, it is remarkable how well it holds up and still hits its marks. Donald Brenner’s fast-paced and polished production of the rarely seen Louisiana Purchase for Musicals Tonight! makes a good case for this as a classic musical comedy of the type they don’t write in our era of the concept musical.
Louisiana Purchase (through March 12, 2017)
The Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.MusicalsTonight.org
Running time: two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission