Herman Revue Ho-Hum

By Geary Danihy

Trying to do too much with too little – it didn’t work in Iraq and, to a great extent, it doesn’t work out at the Ivoryton Playhouse, which is currently presenting Jerry’s Girls, a musical revue featuring the songs of Jerry Herman, the composer of such Broadway hits as Mame, Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles.

There’s a certain “Hey, let’s put on a show” quality to this production -- a summer stock earnestness that doesn’t mask the fact that we’re on a budget here. The basic problem is that almost everyone who attends Jerry’s Girls is familiar with the scores of Herman’s mega-hits via cast albums, covers of many of the songs by various artists or attendance at the original Broadway shows. Thus, when the five “Girls” offer up “Milk and Honey,” from the musical of the same name, they do their best, as does the quartet – keyboard, bass, drums and sax/flute -- sitting up in a loft stage center, but this is supposed to be a triumphant anthem, not a supper club segue into appetizers and “Chicken Hawaiian.” The original piece was written to swell and eventually overwhelm the audience. Alas, swelling and overwhelming just ain’t in the cards here. The effect is similar to that of using a tin whistle when a tuba is called for.

“Hello Dolly” fizzles and “The Best of Times,” the show’s finale, is disappointingly truncated. Oddly enough, when the “Big” number is rethought, it works. “Mame,” the over-the-top paean to the show’s title character, is downsized here into a pointillist cake walk that becomes a charming little moment.
 
Another problem with this pastiche is that the “Girls” are asked to be “boys,” and it just doesn’t work. Elizabeth Talbot and Jackie Sidle are charged with delivering “I Won’t Send Roses,” a song from one of Herman’s favorite creations, Mack and Mabel, a musical about the early days of Hollywood, the “Mack” being Mack Sennett and the “Mabel” Mabel Normand.  Well, anyone familiar with the musical knows that this is Mack’s signature song – as delivered on Broadway by Robert Preston – with Mabel (Bernadette Peters on Broadway) doing the reprise. Sung by two of the “Girls” it’s pleasant but a bit like asking a guy to pull off…well, “If He Walked Into My Life.” I don’t care how good he might be, it’s Mame’s song. Later in the first act, Julia Kiley, who also directs, does Mame proud with her rendition of this classic eleven o’clock number.

Oddly enough, it’s the revue’s take on music from one of Herman’s less successful shows, the aforementioned Mack and Mabel, linked to a song he wrote for A Day In Hollywood…that comes off the best. Early in the second act, Amy Forbes, along with Talbot, Kiley and Mary Anne Piccolo, perform a nicely-staged “Just Go to the Movies” that segues into “Movies Were Movies” and ends with Piccolo’s rendition of “Look What Happened to Mabel.” Perhaps the segment works as well as it does because there is a thematic connection to the numbers which allows them to be coherently staged. Most of the other numbers must stand alone, with the audience left to figure out the relationship between, for example, “We Need a Little Christmas” and “Tap Your Troubles Away.”

Although there are numerous costume changes, there doesn’t seem to be much distinction  between the performers, with the exception of Piccolo, who has been given several specialty numbers – “Where Ever He Ain’t,” “So Long Dearie” and Gooch’s Song” – which she works for effect and laughs.

The entire effort is not helped by the somewhat kitschy set designed by Rachel Reynolds, which features the musicians in the loft, iridescent blue wings and the obligatory landing and stairs (Can anyone stage a revue without a landing and stairs?), which the performers trudge up and down for no apparent reason other than they have to move somewhere. As they do ascend, or pause on the landing, Doug Harry’s lighting design does not serve them well – often the performers’ faces are lost in shadow.

Jerry’s Girls is a pleasant enough way to spend several hours – Herman’s witty, tuneful songs see to that – but, save for several numbers, there’s not much electricity up there on the stage. The pedestrian nature of the production suggests little of the over-the-top nature of Herman’s most successful shows.

Jerry’s Girls runs through Saturday, Nov. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

 
            This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.

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