A serial killer is on the loose in New York, strangling elderly women one by one, and leaving a lipstick kiss on the forehead of each of his victims.  Hardly the stuff of musical theater, you might think. 

Well, think again, because No Way To Treat A Lady turns out to be a bright and tuneful treat, with a bit of edge-of-your-seat damsel-in-distress suspense thrown in for extra seasoning.

It’s taken a while for No Way to make it to L.A.—its World Premiere was 22 years ago—but with results as thoroughly enjoyable and thoroughly thrilling as those on display at Burbank’s Colony Theatre, it’s been well worth the wait.

Set firmly back in the pre-cell phone summer of 1970 when Zsa Zsa Gabor was starring in 40 Carats on Broadway and New York Mayor Lindsay raised the mass transportation fare from 20 to 30 cents, No Way To Treat A Lady centers around a pair of mama’s boys. Detective Morris “Mo” Brummel is pushing 40 and still living at home with his very Jewish mother Flora, and unemployed actor Christopher “Kit” Gill is mourning the death of his Broadway superstar mother, the immortal (and ever-turbaned) Alexandra Gill. Alexandra must be immortal, because she keeps coming back from the dead to remind her son of what a failure he is as an actor. Unlike mother, son will never have his name on the front page of the New York Times—that is unless he gives the performances of his life as …

Neighborhood priest Father Barry Fitzgerald, dance sensation and Arthur Murray graduate Ramone, pizza delivery boy Tony, and even Detective Mo Brummel himself.

If Kit assumes a different persona for each of his murders, it is because for him it’s not so much about murder as it is about proving to his mother (and the world) that he’s an acting virtuoso.  (No matter that each audience of one dies before she can applaud his performance.)

Assigned to investigate the first of Kit’s murders, Mo knocks on the door of the victim’s downstairs neighbor Sarah Stone.  Finally convinced of his identity, Sarah opens the door to Mo, who is instantly struck by Cupid’s arrow.  “Good God, what eyes!” he sings. “Bluish, greenish, hazel!  Loveliest eyes I’ve ever seen!” Sarah is much more cautious, having been hurt one too many times, but finds Mo “a perfectly nice change of pace” and “kind of cute, well, for a cop” so maybe, just maybe she’ll take a chance on love one more time.

As Kit’s targets continue to fall victim to his charms (and strangulating hands), and as his fame continues to grow, he begins to focus his attention on the one woman who would be the perfect ultimate victim, none other than Mo’s new girlfriend, the lovely and quite vulnerable Sarah Stone.

Part love story, part police procedural, all musical comedy delight, No Way To Treat A Lady is the creation of composer-lyricist-book writer Douglas J. Cohen, and based on the exciting 1968 movie thriller of the same name, which featured George Segal as Mo, Rod Steiger as Kit, Lee Remick as Sarah, Eileen Heckart as Flora, and a bevy of actresses as Kit’s victims.  The Colony Theater’s West Coast Premiere production stars Colony fave Kevin Symons (Mo) and a trio of Broadway vets: Jack Noseworthy (Kit), Erica Piccininni (Sarah) and Heather Lee (everyone else). Under the skilled direction of West Hyler and Shelley Butler, the result may well be the Colony’s best all-around musical since 2005’s The Grand Tour—and though there are only four actors on stage, it feels like a much bigger production because of Noseworthy’s many disguises and Lee’s many roles, including the ghost of Alexandra Gill.

The most memorable of Cohen’s songs are the very catchy “So Far So Good” and the absolutely lovely “One Of The Beautiful People,” both of which you’re likely to leave the theater humming. There’s also the devilishly ironic “Only A Heartbeat Away,” sung by “Father Fitzgerald” to the first of Kit’s victims, “I Hear Humming,” Flora’s musical complaint about how grating Mo’s Sarah-inspired humming is on a mother’s nerves, and my personal favorite, “So Much In Common,” with Sarah winning over Flora by telling her that her home is “so Jewish!” Oy vey!

As he did in the Rubicon’s She Loves Me, the always ingratiating Symons’ “Jimmy-Stewart-Who-Can-Sing” persona makes him the perfect choice for Mo, and he shares great chemistry with the lovely and golden-voiced Piccininni, a recent East Coast transplant and bright new light on the L.A. musical theater scene. Lee hits a home run with the dream assignment of bringing a bouquet of very different “moms” to life, from frumpy gray-haired Flora to glamorous, imperious Alexandra to brassy, bleach-blonde Sadie.  And speaking of dream roles, the prodigiously talented Noseworthy gets to inhabit not only the demonically charming Kit (to whom he gives real poignancy), but all of Kit’s disguises, including a delicious turn as Sarah herself.  Choreographer Jane Lanier gives Noseworthy a sensational 11th hour showstopper, a reprise of “Front Page News,” in which he proves himself a high-kicking triple-threat with straw hat and cane.

Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set design divides the Colony stage into a number of clearly distinguished yet cleverly overlapping locales, from Mo’s bedroom to Kit’s victims’ apartments to Kit’s dressing room to Central Park, ably assisted by master lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick. Pivnick lights the late Alexandra from below to appropriately spooky effect, casts film-noirish shadows on the wall to heighten atmosphere and suspense, and lights the “Front Page News” reprise with Vegas pizzazz.  Paloma Young’s costumes nicely evoke the early seventies as well as transforming Lee into five different characters (aided by Joni Rudesill’s wigs) and doing the same for Noseworthy.  Drew Dalzell’s sound design provides the perfect mix of the cast’s fine voices and the superb four-piece orchestra conducted by music director extraordinaire Dean Mora. Lanier’s excellent choreography also includes a killer tango for Ramone and victim # 2 Carmella, and a cute Busby Berkeley homage in “The First Move.” 

It’s been four or five years since I first heard the 1996 off-Broadway cast recording of No Way To Treat A Lady and thought at the time, that’s a show I really want to see.  Thankfully, the Colony production has entirely lived up to my expectations.  I can’t imagine off-Broadway having done it any better than this.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
April 19, 2009 
                                                                     Photos: Michael Lamont

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