To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Encores! concert series at City Center is doing something in “Hey Look Me Over” that it’s never done before – and, judging from the results, probably shouldn’t do again.
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Now, it’s impossible to dismiss a show with such a starry talented cast, including Bebe Neuwirth singing and dancing to Noel Coward’s Sail Away and Vanessa Williams singing and dancing from Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Jamaica.” Its delights were enough to make me glad I was there.
But since 1994, Encores! has presented concert versions of full Broadway musicals that were worth a second look: The long-running revival of “Chicago” on Broadway, lasting far longer than the original production, got its start as an Encores! concert. Generally, the ideal Encores! show has a worthwhile score but a faulty book. “Hey Look Me Over,” by contrast, presents selections from ten separate musicals, mostly from the 1960s. Deliberately or not, the effect is to communicate that the books for these particular shows weren’t just faulty; they weren’t worth anything at all; certainly not a revisit.
The conceit of “Hey Look Me Over,” which is being promoted as a new musical, is that a long-time Encores! subscriber so pestered artistic director Jack Viertel with complaints about the “shocking omissions” that Viertel finally gave him an Encores evening to curate. The subscriber/curator in question is the supremely witty Bob Martin, the original Man in Chair from “The Drowsy Chaperone,” and he proves an entertaining MC. But his jokes and brief introductions to each sample don’t offer anything close to a plot. Compared to “Hey Look Me Over,” the recent “Prince of Broadway,” a highlights reel of a revue, was positively Shakespearean in its plotting.
That’s not just because there was a thread that ran through the Prince revue, thin a thread though it was – Hal Prince! More importantly, most of the musical numbers were from shows that were familiar enough so that much of the audience could supply whatever missing context.
To do the same for the mostly obscure shows in “Hey Look Me Over,” you’d have to be a, well, Jack Viertel.
If there’s no real plot or context in this Encores celebration, there emerges something of a theme, with a politically charged undercurrent – the making of an American. “All American,” a musical by Charles Strouse and Mel Brooks (which lasted 86 performances in 1962) is about immigration; Reed Birney not only portrays an immigrant 5,000 miles from home; he sings! After the curtain call, the cast sang Irving Berlin’s song, from the 1949 musical Miss Liberty, that takes its lyrics from the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor”
Some audience members might feel both tired, after a scattershot show that lasts more than two and a half hours, and poor, with top ticket price for this show by a nonprofit at $135. But most will surely also depart feeling entertained. Besides Bebe Neuwirth’s thrilling turn in Coward’s Sail Away, and Vanessa Williams’ in Jamaica, I was bowled over by:
Tam Mutu and Clyde Alves singing “Milk and Honey,” the title song of the musical by Jerry Herman
The ensemble scurrying about with various filmmaking scenarios while Douglas Sills sang “Movies Were Movies” from Herman’s Mack and Mabel
Clifton Duncan belting out “Never Will I Marry” from Frank Loesser’s Greenwillow
And Clyde Alves and the ensemble singing and tap-dancing their way through Give Me Regards to Broadway from George M!, with music and lyrics by George M Cohan.
There are four more performances of Hey Look Me Over – two today (Saturday), two tomorrow (Sunday)