The 1939 Du Barry Was a Lady is an uneasy blend of night club production numbers, vaudeville jokes, and historical pastiche, circa the court of King Louis XV, including 1930’s references and French mores. The flashback technique is one that bookwriter Fields had previously used in the 1927 Rodgers and Hart musical, A Connecticut Yankee. The original cast featured personalities Bert Lahr and Ethel Merman (in her third of five Porter show) plus later Hollywood celebrities, dancer Betty Grable and director Charles Walters (Easter Parade, Lili, and High Society).
The story is extremely far-fetched even for a thirties musical comedy. Louis Blore, the men’s washroom attendant at New York’s Club Petite, has won a $75,000 sweepstakes. Having quit his job, he now hopes the club star attraction May Daly will marry him. However, she has always been in love with Hollywood gossip columnist Alex Barton who is in an unhappy marriage. All the workers at the club have been to see the new movie extravaganza, Du Barry, in order to see Louis in the news reel. Charlie, Louis’ thuggish replacement who has done a stint in a reform school, suggests that Louis give Alex a Mickey Finn to get him out of the way.
Somehow the drinks are switched and it is Louis who gets the knockout drink. He dreams he is Louis XV back in the days of Madame Du Barry, the king’s official mistress, who is now played by May as a standoffish royal. Alex shows up in Louis’ dream as Alexandre, a songwriter who has insulted the king’s relationship with Du Barry and is now an outlaw on the run from the king’s guard. Charlie is the Dauphin, successor to the king, who is looking forward to replacing him – via bow and arrow. Harry and Alice, the club’s dance team, show up as Lebel, leader of the King’s Guard, and Alisande de Vernay, attendant to Du Barry. After a series of complications, Louis wakes up and things pretty much go back to the way they were before.
The show has a great many topical references to celebrities of 1939 (Minsky, Sophie Tucker, Tallulah Bankhead, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt) not all of whom still ring any bells for most theatergoers. Aside from the justly famous “Friendship,” which has also been interpolated into Anything Goes since the 1962 NY revival, the show is second-rate and unfamiliar Porter. Ironically, three of the songs (“It Ain’t Etiquette,” “Well, Did You Evah!” and “Friendship”) resurfaced in Peter Bogdanovich’s flop original movie musical, At Long Last Love, in 1975. The patter songs, “But in the Morning, No,” “Give Him the Oo-la-la,” “Well, Did you Evah!,” and “Katie Went to Haiti” have clever lyrics but are not up to Porter’s usual standard.
Papas’ direction is energetic but lacking in style. His dance routines are minimal and quite conventional. While the songs are well sung in music director James Stenborg’s vocal arrangements, none of them make much impression as none of them forward the plot. In the dual role of Louis Blore and King Louis XV, Peyton Crim is hearty but off-hand. Jennifer Evans exhibits much vivacity as singer-dancer May Daly, and later Madame Du Barry, but like all the other characters in the plot her role is merely one-dimensional with a great many zingers to hurl.
As the writer Alex, Patrick Oliver Jones is a handsome and stalwart hero and gets to sing two attractive love songs, “Do I Love You” and “It Was Written in the Stars,” though as written is role is decidedly wooden. Lilly Tobin makes the most of the acerbic night club dancer Vi and the equally acerbic Duchess Villardell. Tim McGarrigal and Katherine McLaughlin are bland as the club’s dance team who are feuding over getting married.
Devin I Vogel’s setting is serviceable but not much else, while Courtney Butt’s costumes do not suggest the high society club or the extravagant era of the court of Louis XV. Musicals Tonight!’s revival of Du Barry Was a Lady reveals that even a Cole Porter score cannot save a weak book. A show this thin needs a much more stylish and lavish production to give it the pizzazz that it is sorely missing.
Du Barry Was a Lady (through April 9, 2017)
The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.musicalstonight.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes including one intermission