I’ve not written of the Encores! series before, though it’s been entertaining New Yorkers for twenty consecutive years, since 1994. It was intended to be a series of staged readings of musicals, with actors carrying scripts, wearing minimal costuming, playing in merely suggested settings, a larger version of those Musicals in Mufti which I described in my last column.
Encores! has become so popular that buying a subscription is almost impossible unless you are willing to sit in what’s called the “balcony”, but is in effect the gallery, for it’s miles from the stage. The Mufti musicals are played at the York, a 178 seat mini theatre, while Encores! has the City Center at 2750 seats. However, single seats can be purchased at the box office or online. It also offers enormous orchestras, and makes use of the original orchestrations unless they have disappeared or been damaged, and in those cases, they call on Broadway’s best to reproduce or augment them.
They rehearse for just two short weeks, but they have grown over the decades into what amounts virtually to a fully staged Broadway production with full casts, no cheating on the singing or dancing ensembles. Sets and costumes are still suggested, but much more imaginatively. And some of the best principal actors are happy to return to the ensemble since they only give seven performances, are seen by most of the theatre community, and on occasion (Wonderful Town, Chicago) someone comes along, scoops them up, and they move just a few blocks south for a run that can last a lifetime (One such Encores!, Chicago is now the longest running revival in Broadway history, and it has far outrun the original production).
So – though you won’t be able to see the current offering (Little Me), I’ll tell you all about it in case it is somehow extended. More importantly, I think you should know about Encores! in general, for it is almost always about the best show in town. There are just 3 productions a year, and there are two coming up that look most interesting. The Most Happy Fella will be here April 2-6, and Irma La Douce will be working the streets of Paris (but at the City Center) May 7-11. I’m certain both will be worth planning a visit.
The Little Me I saw at the Saturday matinée was infinitely more fun that the original production. That was in 1962-3 and it was tailored for Sid Caesar who had delighted America for years on “Your Show of Shows” with his farcical characterizations in sketch comedies. So though the title role is Belle Poitrine, in that production she played second fiddle to the comic star. Virginia Martin, who played her, had looks-terrific, period. Despite Caesar’s huge TV following, the show eked out only 257 performances and lost money. In 1982, it fared even worse, in a production that split Caesar’s seven roles between Victor Garber and James Coco. It eked out 36 performances. In the very late 90’s, Martin Short tried to carry this vehicle on his not-so-broad shoulders and though he was endearing, he managed only 99 performances.
Following the “three strikes you’re out” edict, the show has been ignored, despite its topnotch creators Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh on book, music and lyrics. In addition, the original was produced by Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, a Tiffany management firm that almost never missed the brass ring. The advance sale was humongous, but the post opening ticket sales were weak and it didn’t have legs.
This time out, Jack Viertel (artistic director and concert adapter) and his staff which is headed by Jay Binder (casting), Rob Berman (music director), John Lee Beatty (scenic consultant) and others of equal talent, have put together a lalapalooza of a show that is fun from the opening chords of the overture. The orchestra has lots of brass in it, but that’s fine for it’s a brassy show, It gives the old meaning back to “musical comedy,” those two greatest words in the English language. Coleman’s score is dazzling in its musical invention, allowing him to use his background in jazz as well as his natural gift for melody (is there a lovelier waltz anywhere than “Real Live Girl”?). Leigh’s words are, as always, intelligent, impudent, startling, tender when needed. Simon’s book is so full of the one-liners that later became his trade mark. Little Me was his first musical, and it followed his first play, Come Blow Your Horn, which said ‘phooey’ to the critics who dismissed it, and found its audience for 677 performances at the Brook Atkinson Theatre.
The original cast of Little Me was fine. Feuer and Martin were top producers, and with Bob Fosse on tap as choreographer, they were able to get the best actors and dancers. Swen Swenson for example, stopped the show nightly doing “I’ve Got Your Number”. But Jay Binder and the director John Rando have come through for this Encores! revival by once again delivering from top to bottom.
Encores! rehearsal video of Little Me
The rising star Christian Borle, who is a true original, carries the show and never drops it, not for a second, not even in the second act, which doesn’t quite measure up to the first. He can be startlingly moving (a shy boy dancing with his first “real live girl”), he can create a sort of slinky Chevalier with “Boom Boom”(hilarious), he can put on a fright wig and play an octogenarian so well that you’re not quite sure it’s Borle in that wheel chair. It’s not only a wig and a wheelchair, though they help, but it’s body English and an accent no one’s ever heard before that do the trick. When Borle is on, he knows how to “take the stage” and if ever there was a show that requires that, this is it. I’d call it the kind of success for him that Robert Preston had in The Music Man and he only had to play one role all night. Borle has seven, and you’ll love ’em all.
The aptly named Belle Poitrine (nee Schlumphfort) is in the capable hands of Rachel York, who can belt out “The Other Side of the Tracks” as effectively as she can use other registers to croon a love song. Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof are playing the twin brothers to the two gangsters in Kiss Me, Kate. Here they are Benny and Bernie Buchsbaum, who as agents, (mis)handle Val du Val, one of the seven suitors of Ms. Poitrine, all of them played by Mr. Borle. They’ve got a gem of a song of their own, and they know just what to do with it — “Be a Performer” with them performing it is a crowd pleaser, so much so, they have to do it twice – once in each act.
Tony Yazbeck has his own way with “I’ve Got Your Number”. His singing, his movement sizzles, and his dancing works too. The always welcome Judy Kaye (a featured actress who earned the entrance applause she now gets) is the older Belle, our guide through the tale of Little Me. She and David Garrison, who plays Patrick Dennis, the author of the novel on which the musical is based, are very useful indeed. As is that other gem of a doyenne, Harriet Harris, playing another of her monster mothers. No song for her, more’s the pity, but even without one, she joins Estelle Parsons, Blythe Danner (Nice Work if You Can Get It), Andrea Martin and Tovah Felshuh (Pippin) in playing Moms and Grandmas who make the most of one song or one scene.
John Rando has kept all this moving with lightning speed, and still managed to have characters relate to each other. Joshua Bergasse, who did good work on the recent “Smash” on TV, has made us forget that Bob Fosse was the original choreographer. His “Rich Kids Rag”, which may have been inspired by Fosse, is a wonderful way to get a fun show off to a great start.
Sorry you have to miss this, but keep in mind that Encores! rarely makes a mistake in choosing material and The Most Happy Fella and Irma La Douce both promise to help us welcome the long overdue spring weather.
Richard Seff, Broadway performer, agent, playwright, librettist, columnist adds novelist to his string of accomplishments, with the publication of his first novel, TAKE A GIANT STEP. His first book, Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stage, celebrates his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes. Both books are available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
He has also written the book to SHINE! The Horatio Alger Musical which was a triple prize winner at the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF). Each year, Actors Equity recognizes the year’s most outstanding supporting player with, appropriately enough, the Richard Seff Award.