Christian Borle clowns like an old-time vaudevillian, Laura Michelle Kelly sings like a classic chanteuse, and director Warren Carylyle choreographs the topnotch cast like a 1930s showman; they’re tap-dancing on tabletops! “Me and My Girl,” closing out the 25th anniversary season of Encores!, shows off what’s most wonderful about this “concert series,” but also what’s disappointing about it.
Borle is Bill Snibson, a Cockney bloke who is told he is now the 14tth Earl of Hareford, upon the death of his father, Lord Hareford, whom he never knew. The catch is that the executors of his father’s estate, Sir John (Chuck Cooper) and the Duchess of Dene (Harriet Harris),must determine that Bill is “fit and proper” – and that whomever he marries must also be so. This does not describe Bill’s girl Sally, (Kelly), who like him is from Lamberth, a lower class section of London. Seeing an opening, gold-digging aristocrat Lady Jacqueline (Lisa O’Hara) breaks up with her posh boyfriend Gerald (Mark Evans) to put the moves on Bill. Meanwhile, the Duchess, who is Bill’s aunt, tries to educate him to the ways of high society. At the same time, Sir John surreptitiously encourages Sally to take speech lessons. Because they have shed their lower class accents, manners and values, all resolves happily for Bill and Sally, as well as for the Duchess and Lord John (who has always been in love with her, and finally tells her) and even for Lady Jacqui and Gerald – but not quite as happily for connoisseurs of serious musical theater.
As in any Encores production – indeed, something supposedly essential to Encores’ DNA – the story the musical tells is the least interesting or important aspect of “Me and My Girl.” The dialogue is full of silly puns, the characters stereotypes, the plot predictable and unoriginal. That it is derivative is acknowledged in the show itself in a crafty meta-theatrical moment. When Sir John convinces Sally to see a speech teacher, he says: “There are all kinds of things you can do with a good accent. …You could get a little dress shop…There’s an army friend of mine. He shares a house in Upper Wimpole Street with a remarkable man who could certainly do it. He’s done it before.”
They’re talking about Henry Higgins! Bringing up Shaw does “Me and My Girl” no favors, inviting a comparison. Yes, the show doesn’t pretend to be anything but escapist fare, but I could not escape the political implications of a fluffy musical about a proud vulgarian suddenly put in charge. Unlike Shaw, the show offers no pointed commentary about the class system, just tired jokes.
The Encores series was created to bring renewed attention to the scores of old musicals that were underappreciated in their day – most often because of flawed books – and attention to their composers. “Me and My Girl” contains some lovely songs, such as Sally’s love ballad, “Once You Lose Your Heart,” and a catchy ensemble number, “The Lambeth Walk,” which reportedly was an actual dance craze in the 1930s, (The title song “Me and My Girl” should not be confused with Judy Garland/Gene Kelly’s “Me and My Gal,” which is more tuneful, although they both have their fans.) Even the less memorable songs give Carlyle (“Hello, Dolly,” “After Midnight”) an opportunity for his trademark energetic synchronized (tap) choreography.
As we’re told in the program, “Me and My Girl” was a hit when it opened in London in 1937, its songs written by one Reginald Armitage, who used the stage name Noel Gay (after seeing an ad for a revue starring Noël Coward and Maisie Gay), and became a very popular songwriter in England. But the show was revived on Broadway, with a revised book and the addition of seven Gay songs that were not in the original show. It won three Tonys and played for more than three years in the late 1980s. “Me and My Girl,” in other words, was appreciated. So why was it selected for Encores?
Encores has, to put it politely, evolved. It is no longer really a concert series. Yes, the orchestra is still on the stage, and glorious. But gone are the black scripts on music stands. The performers, always terrific, often stars, give full off-book performances. There are sets now, and elaborate choreography, and, most to the point, selections – such as “Me and My Girl,” its 75th musical – that aren’t different enough from what we’re seeing in the commercial houses of Broadway. Good production values, great casts, same dopey fare: “Me and My Girl” is a Broadway show offered at Broadway prices. The main difference is that its run is only for a week.
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
“Me and My Girl” was on stage at City Center from May 9 to May 13, 2018.