Damn, there’s that bloody song again! It’ll worm its way into your earwaves during the overture, long before they proceed to stop the show and the act and the traffic outside City Center, and from past experience I can diagnose that it’ll take about three weeks to set it out to pasture. We speak, of course, of “The Lambeth Walk.” Don’t know it, you think? Well you will soon enough, and to quote the not-quite-immortal lyric: “oi!”
This in reference to Me and My Girl, the season closer of the 25th semester of City Center Encores!, a tap-happy tuner that charms its way through the night and leaves the patrons pouring out onto West 55th beaming like Lambeth lampposts on a fogless eve.
Before we speak of the material itself, which “Lambeth Walk” aside is generally amusing but not otherwise much to speak of, let’s look at the man in the spotlight. The estimable Christian Borle clowns his way through the evening with the style and panache of his predecessors in this mid-80s revamp of a Depression-era musical, Robert Lindsay (who won a Tony in the role) and Jim Dale (who would have won, too, if there were an award for star replacements).
This is heady competition, but Borle is no mere follower. The actor has long demonstrated a refined sense of the ludicrous, mixed in with acting, singing and even tapping talent. He has been effective in any number of roles, from Legally Blonde to Falsettos; he also gave a fine dramatic performance as Prior Walter in the 2010 Signature production of Angels in America.
Through his many adventures, though, one always imagined him as a musical comedy buffoon with a Lear within; a leer, rather. An outsized performer like the late Zero Mostel only with a Marxian sensibility, one imagines that Borle spent his childhood not simply eating but devouring animal crackers and coconuts. Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts, that is; all those slinkily slouching turns and cartoonish leaps-and-flutters bear the Mark of Groucho. As a result, we get Borle gloriously indulging in what appears to be his inner core as an artist: Think of his Tony-winning Black Stache in Peter and the Starcatcher and add low-comedy songs. He swoops about the stage, a blissed-out zany unrestrained and irrepressible.
Matching him, slug for slug, is Harriet Harris as the overstuffed grand duchess of the manor. Borle and Harris, both, have long displayed such irrepressible comic presences that fans will walk into City Center knowing precisely what to expect from them. Even so, both of them knock it out of the park (which I really ought to translate to cricket terminology, but I’m more interested in talking about Me and My Girl). Harris, in many past appearances, has demonstrated a refined-society patina which never quite masks the anarchy within. Here, she makes a perfect Rittenhouse to Borle’s Captain Spalding. But neither of them are at all interested in historical restoration. They even have what they seem to have translated into a blissful Groucho/Margaret Dumont deportment scene, midway through the first act, and they make it uproarious (which, on paper, it isn’t).
Speaking of what is on paper, we turn to the material. Me and My Girl was a massive West End hit when it opened in 1937, its popularity boosted by the irrepressible “Lambeth Walk.” The show enjoyed a four-year run, but the plot—the one about a Cockney bloke who turns out to be an Earl, in dire need of a Pygmalion-like makeover—was too localized for overseas transfer. (This points up, lest you’re interested, the unprecedented success of Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, which opened in London in 1960 and became the first British-born supermusical to dominate the world since the days of Pinafore and Floradora.)
In 1984, some producers—led by the son of composer Noel Gay—determined to rescue the show. Not with a by-the-numbers revival, but in a thoroughly renovated new version as had been done in the U.S. with No, No Nanette in 1971. Additional songs from the Gay catalog were added, along with a clever-and-functional new book devised by Stephen Fry with contributions from the director of the occasion, Mike Ockrent (replacing the original by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, who also collaborated on the lyrics). The West End production proved so successful that the show—with leading man Lindsay but not leading lady Emma Thompson—was wafted across the blue Atlantic. Me and My Girl was the initial musical offered at the spanking new Marquis Theatre on Times Square, enjoyed a three-year run, and remains the finest and most successful tenant of that ill-starred showplace.
The merriment is boosted by the contributions of Chuck Cooper as a friendly Lord and Don Stephenson as a Gilbertian solicitor with a wayward curl. (Stephenson gives as fine a comic performance as ever we’ve seen from him, although we never did get to see what he did as a replacement Leo in The Producers.) Mark Evans and Lisa O’Hare add to the fun as upper-class twits out to sabotage our hero, both of them providing some uproarious comic terping along the way. Speaking of the dance, let us add that director/choreographer Warren Carlyle (Hello, Dolly!) outdoes himself in number after number; and that the band, following the bouncing baton of Rob Berman, swings its way through Chris Walker’s brisk and humorous 1984 orchestrations.
As for the heroine of the evening—Laura Michelle Kelly, of Mary Poppins—let us simply say that as of the first public performance, she doesn’t yet quite have it. Maryann Plunkett (who won herself a Best Actress Tony in the role) and her replacements at the Marquis, Ellen Foley and Judy Blazer, all shone as brightly as their wayward Earl in a manner that Kelly doesn’t yet manage.
As a piece of stage material, let’s just say that Me and My Girl is a worthy-enough affair buoyed by “The Lambeth Walk” as well as a few other irrepressible numbers (like “The Sun Has Got His Hat On”). With a performer like Borle center stage, clowns like Harris, Cooper and Stephenson egging him on, and a grand ensemble providing cheer and taps, this is a jolly evening’s entertainment alright. Which you can catch through Sunday night at City Center, oi!
Me and My Girl opened May 9, 2018, at City Center and runs through May 13. Tickets and information: nycitycenter.org