Imagine a political atmosphere in which big-spending dilettantes are so valued that the president of the United States actually rewards them with ambassadorships to countries across the sea. Hard to believe such happenings could ever occur, not in our great nation. But that is the premise for the 1950 musical comedy blockbuster Call Me Madam, now on stage as the opening entry in Encores’ 2019 season celebrating the 75th anniversary of City Center.
Call Me Madam, for those of you rooted in the 21st century, was a star vehicle for Ethel Merman at the absolute peak of her career. Her skills carried the show, which has a sturdy but mostly unimaginative score by Irving Berlin; this, four years after Merman and Berlin triumphed with the infinitely better Annie Get Your Gun. The folks at Encores rather surprisingly demonstrated, in their sophomore season of 1995, that Call Me Madam could indeed work without Merman. Tyne Daly was not a seasoned musical comedy star like the role’s originator, but she had a similarly outsized personality which made the production pure joy, at the same time more or less cementing the bond between the fledgling Encores and its core audience.
That early success has led the folks at City Center to give us Call Me Madam once more. Which brings us to the point. One can imagine the piece could remain sturdy with a current-day performer of Merman-like dimension. (Bernadette? Patti? Audra? Donna Murphy?) But how does this meticulously assembled star vehicle fare without a dyed-in-the-wool, full-fledged musical comedy star?
The answer is: Kinda well. The new Call Me Madam satisfactorily delivers what they used to call a good old-fashioned musical, with sly cracks from the jokebook interrupted by a parade of brightly tuneful but not especially relevant songs. This is accomplished in high fashion, with some enjoyably charming turns from the players; the ministrations of a fine ensemble, under the tutelage of choreographer Denis Jones; and that old devil Encores orchestra tooting away at Don Walker’s orchestrations with abandon under the steady baton of Rob Berman.
Carmen Cusack inherits the Merman role, hitting the vocal and comic bases and doing quite well. Only, the deck is stacked against her; this “Hostess with the Mostes’ on the Ball” requires a performer who can incandescently light up a 2,000-seater standing on a bare stage with a mere worklight. Cusack, a stunning and surprising knockout in Steve Martin’s Bright Star back in 2016, has the talent, voice, and style to play the role.
But the vagaries of the material demand that the star in Sally Adams’ pumps permeate the proceedings with personality. Here, we just get talent and craft, which might be enough for a finer musical (like the not dissimilar star-vehicle, Wonderful Town) but cannot quite gloss over Call Me Madam. One can only assume that Encores had a suitable scene-stealer lined up for the role; but those arrangements always include an out lest an offer-they-can’t-refuse arises. (Could this have been Patti LuPone, stuck in London due to the extension of the Broadway-bound West End Company?)
Call Me Madam is, yes, enjoyable and—thanks to its shining resurrection—cotton candy to enthusiasts of the genre. But the holes are apparent. Berlin, after 40 years as arguably the nation’s top tunesmith, was on a precipitous decline. Other than Sally’s opening number (“Hostess”), nothing rises above the ordinary and the new romantic ballads fall especially flat. Late in the tryout, Berlin reached down deep in his soul to come up with an altogether nifty counterpoint duet, “You’re Just in Love (I Wonder Why?)” But the rest is lower-grade late Berlin.
The book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is funny but flimsy. Noting Harry Truman’s 1949 appointment of socialite/political matchmaker Perle Mesta as ambassador to Luxembourg, the acclaimed playwrights conjured Ethel as Ambassador to the fictional, Graustarkian Duchy of Lichtenstein. And that’s about it. Sally spends a portion of the evening on long distance with the President (“Hello, Harry”) commiserating on the consistent poor reviews that daughter Margaret receives for her singing. Some of Lindsay and Crouse’s gibes still land, though. Does Sally actually say, “I’m so happy I should be investigated”? Twice?
The score, mostly, fits into the “let’s put in another production number here” mode. In an era when plot-related musical numbers were leading to the modern American musical—South Pacific was the reigning blockbuster just then, and Guys and Dolls was six weeks away—there are no less than two over-extended, thoroughly extraneous dance extravaganzas. The story goes that when a new number was requested, Berlin asked the choreographer—one J. Robbins—what kind of song he wanted. “Something to dance about,” said Jerry, so Irving wrote a song of that title which ricochets between fox-trot, waltz, tango, blues, rumba, etc., while blissfully ignoring the plot.
Helping push this production over to the plus side are the players. Cusack is impressive and altogether game, like an Olympic contender who still needs another two years of training before she’s ready. (She is also given an array of altogether perfect costumes by Jennifer Caprio, some of which seem to perambulate across the stage on their own.) Ben Davis, memorable from the 2002 La Bohème, makes a perfectly fine local dignitary; one imagines that the love story plays better with these two than it does with a superstar Sally Adams. Jason Gotay performs “You’re Just in Love” and “It’s a Lovely Day Today” with such charm, and such attractive pipes, that we can understand why tenors were at the forefront of the Broadway musical until Rodgers and Hammerstein changed the range. He is well matched by Lauren Wisham (of A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder), who provides a fine satirical sketch of a fairy princess.
Stanley Wayne Mathis, Brad Oscar, and Adam Heller add humor as two Democratic Senators and one Republican Congressman squabbling over the 1952 presidential election. Randy Rainbow, whose politically wicked internet videos are worth tracking down and earn him entrance applause here, is wry as the conniving local prime minister. Unaccountably, the estimable Carol Kane and the SNL veteran Darrell Hammond appear late in the proceedings in bit roles and altogether rock the hall with laughter. It is nice to see Encores welcoming director Casey Hushion, a Casey Nicholaw associate, to their midst. She is somewhat hampered, though, by the chore of presenting this star vehicle without a Merman.
But it’s the ministrations of choreographer Jones (of Holiday Inn and Honeymoon in Vegas) that most delight the crowd. Let us add that two hapless Local 802 members are pulled from their saxophones and forced downstage in Tyrolean hats to play ocarinas, and I can’t imagine that the lowly mouth organ has ever received such repeated roars from the house on every blessed note.
Call Me Madam opened February 6, 2019, at City Center and runs through February 10. Tickets and information: nycitycenter.org