Christian Borle Displays Big Talent in Encores! Little Me
By Steven Suskin
Encores! kicked off its 2014 season Feb. 5 with the musical Little Me, starring Tony Award winner Christian Borle. Playbill.com was there.
The cascades of laughter booming (or, more accurately, "boom booming") along West 55th St., which began Feb. 5 and will continue through through Feb. 9., emanate from the stately confines of City Center, where Christian Borle and a band of merrymakers has taken up residence with the brashly satiric musical comedy Little Me.
This 1962 musical which opens the 2014 season at Encores! was built to order around the talents of 1950s television king Sid Caesar, with the book coming from a Caesarian TV writer named Neil Simon (who wasn't to become Broadway's gold-plated playwright until 11 months later, with Barefoot in the Park). The score came from the up-and-coming team of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, who in a brief period of time had turned out two jazz classics ("The Best Is Yet to Come" and "Witchcraft") and the enduring "Hey, Look Me Over!" from their first, failed musical, Wildcat.
What they came up with is one of Broadway's funniest musicals ever, albeit with some built-in problems that caused the show to fail initially and on the occasion of significantly doctored Broadway revivals in 1982 and 1998. Here, restored to its original form, we can see that Little Me at its best offers fast and furious comic fun mixed with an overabundantly tuneful score and a set of the sharpest comedy lyrics ever. And it's at its best at Encores!, where it was greeted last night by waves of laughter.
Little Me — based on a spoof autobiography of a fictional Hollywood bombshell written by Patrick Dennis, of "Auntie Mame" fame — tells of the rise of Belle Poitrine as she accumulates wealth, culture and social position via a succession of wealthy men to whom she brings happiness (although they end up dead, too). Simon's conceit was to build the show not around Belle but around the lovers, making it a vehicle for King of Comedy Caesar as the star plowed through seven roles, occasionally two within the same scene.
Borle, a Broadway favorite for roles in Spamalot, Legally Blonde and his Tony Award-winning romp in Peter and the Starcatcher, is a natural for Little Me. He breezes through the show (and his many costumes) with aplomb, milking warm and friendly laughter throughout. Borle is brilliantly funny here, especially as the aristocratic scion Noble Eggleston, the Chevalier knock-off Val du Val and the Graustarkian Prince Cherny of Rosenzweig. (Given that he is playing roles of different ages and nationalities while singing five songs under the limited-time rehearsal constraints of Encores!, Borle still has not had the opportunity to fully mine all of his characters.)
While splitting the star into the roles of six lovers and one younger man, Simon and cohorts divided the leading lady in two. Rachel York plays Young Belle, singing up a storm (especially in "Poor Little Hollywood Star" and the up-tempo version of "The Other Side of the Tracks") and holding her own against the scene-stealing Borle. Older Belle is essayed by multiple Tony-winner Judy Kaye, who provides the sly narration with a flair.
The funnymaking is enhanced by Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof as Bernie and Bennie Buchsbaum, opportunistic vaudeville bookers; Robert Creighton, who serves as chief stooge to Borle and plays seven small roles; Harriet Harris, who, as Noble's mother generates grand laughter with relatively few lines; and Tony Yazbeck as Belle's other lover, George Musgrove. Yazbeck gets the one knockout song-and-dance, "I've Got Your Number," and he easily stops the show with it.
The score is explosively funny, with Coleman arguably at his brightest and happiest. Leigh dazzles us repeatedly, peppering her lyrics with crackerjack jokes in "I Love You (As Much As I Am Able)," "Deep Down Inside," "Be a Performer!," "Goodbye" and others. Personality issues on the show, alas, short circuited her career; when Little Me's choreographer/codirector Bob Fosse reunited with Coleman and Simon for Sweet Charity, Leigh was purposely excluded and replaced with the equally talented but more personable Dorothy Fields. Encores! most happily restores the long-unheard orchestrations by Ralph Burns, which take off with a xylophone explosion and never let down. Music director Rob Berman seems almost gleeful on the podium, understandably so given the quality of Burns' work.
Director John Rando, who burst on the scene in 2001 with Urinetown and more recently has given us such delights as A Christmas Story and the Encores! productions of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and It's A Bird… It's A Plane… It's Superman, keeps the show breezing along despite its length. (Given Caesar's prominence at the time, one imagines that he demanded inclusion of some bits that now seem expendable.) Josh Bergasse choreographs, paying homage to Fosse by borrowing some staging for "The Rich Kid's Rag," which remains one of the evening's highlights. Bergasse does a charming job with the wounded doughboy's rendition of "Real Live Girl," a softshoe with puttees on crutches.
Little Me plays seven performances, with double-show days Feb. 8-9. The season continues with two likely treats, Frank Loesser's masterpiece The Most Happy Fella in April and Marguerite Monnot's Gallic treat Irma La Douce in May.
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