Hey, Look Me Over! celebrates 25 years of Encores! at New York City Center. These events offer staged concert presentations of often obscure or short running (but worthy) Broadway musicals that haven’t had notable revivals. This show was conceived by Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel and has a revelatory selection of numbers from musicals that haven’t been produced before by Encores! Some are enticing enough to want to see the entire show and with others the excerpt is enough.
Like some of the shows it samples, this presentation is imperfect but is overall entertaining. Mr. Viertel conception also includes an arguably irksome framing device.
Writer-performer Bob Martin recycles his sweater-clad disaffected “Man in the Chair” character from his 2006 Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone. The conceit is that he’s a disgruntled Encores! subscriber who has been chosen to pick his selections for inclusion. Mr. Martin addresses the audience to offer commentary, often tells inside jokes and interacts with the cast. Depending on one’s sensibilities, this is either an inspired or an insufferable device. However, it doesn’t mar the actual production.
Jerry Herman’s 1974 flop Mack and Mabel is one of the Holy Grails for musical theater aficionados. Here it is done great justice with its silent movie-themed overture and the commanding Douglas Sills as Mack Sennett and the wonderfully spunky Alexandra Socha as Mabel Normand. “Movies Were Movies” and “Look What Happened to Mabel” are marvelously rendered.
“Why Do the Wrong People Travel” is sensationally performed by Bebe Neuwirth with her typical Bob Fosse flair in Noël Coward’s 1961 modest running Sail Away. Ms. Neuwirth skillfully puts her own stamp on the role of Mimi Paragon, a caustic cruise ship social director that Elaine Stritch created. Tam Matu does a suitably wistful take on the title song and the company performs a lively “Come to Me.” There is the also the fun ensemble number “Come to Me.”
Vanessa Williams wearing a blazing red outfit and later a sombrero is magnetic singing “Ain’t It the Truth” and “Push the Button” from Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen’s 1957 Jamaica in the Lena Horne part.
Acclaimed dramatic actor Reed Birney surprisingly revealed himself to be an accomplished musical comedy performer in his professional singing debut. Mr. Birney plays the Ray Bolger role of a displaced Hungarian professor who relocates to Alabama in 1962’s All American. Book writer Mel Brooks’ jokes are still funny and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams score is still tuneful. “Melt Us,” “What a Country!” and the aching standard “Once Upon a Time” were the selections. Judy Kuhn is lovely as a college dean.
Jerry Herman’s lively debut Broadway score for 1961’s Milk and Honey is represented by “Shalom,” “Independence Day Hora” and “Milk and Honey.” The engaging plot has a tour group of American widows traveling around Israel. Marc Kudisch, Ms. Kuhn and the ensemble were dynamic. The hilarious Nancy Opel in the Molly Picon role isn’t given much to do though.
There are jokes about 1960’s fantasy Greenwillow being lesser Frank Loesser. It lives up to the pun. Despite a powerhouse performance of “Never Will I Marry” by Clifton Duncan, it’s a dull affair. “A Day Borrowed from Heaven,” “Gideon’s Charm” and “The Music of Home” are included as well.
The fabulous Encores! orchestra under the masterful musical direction of conductor Rob Berman played that show’s prelude. In addition, Jule Styne’s 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping is showcased by its bouncy overture.
In 1960 the flop Wildcat about oil drilling was thought of as a wan vehicle for Lucille Ball who made her first and only Broadway appearance in it. Even the great talents of Carolee Carmello wearing jeans and a leather vest could only go far with the mediocre hit song from it, “Hey, Look Me Over!” “Oil” is a generic ensemble number that also demonstrated the show’s blandness. This was the concert’s opening sequence and Cy Coleman’s glorious overture does get it off to a bracing start.
Director Marc Bruni’s staging is resourceful, brisk and conveys the essence of all the shows. Choreographer Denis Jones heroically manages to deliver a variety of styles that the company perfectly realizes.
Scenic designer Allen Moyer’s has posters of past Encores! productions floating above the stage and clever embellishments that swiftly and vividly establish the many locales. The costume design by Alejo Vietti is varied and vibrant. Lighting designer Paul Miller and sound designer Dan Moses Schreier’s high caliber efforts contribute the production’s technical polish.
At the performance under review, listed performer Clyde Alves was joined by Joel Grey’s euphoric singing and tap dancing his way through “Give My Regards to Broadway” during his unbilled and brief appearance is an electrifying highlight of Hey, Look Me Over!
The soon to be 86-year-old Mr. Grey is delightfully recreating his role of George M. Cohan from the 1968 musical George M! This was the show’s smashing finale, only it isn’t.
After the cast took their curtain calls, they then performed the comparatively glum “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Irving Berlin’s 1949 musical Miss Liberty. The show business maxim of always leave them wanting more was woefully ignored.
New York City Center Encores! at 25: Hey, Look Me Over! (February 7 – 11, 2018)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission