Take music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and a book by Neil Simon and what do you get?

You get Little Me, a 1962 Broadway gem that starred Sid Caesar in a septet of roles, scored ten Tony nominations (winning one for Bob Fosse’s choreography), closed way too soon due mostly to a newspaper strike, then toured the country with most of its original cast, its L.A. run one of the earliest musicals seen by a certain Steven Stanley just a year into his teens.

All this is prelude to the excitement this reviewer felt at seeing Little Me in its one-night-only concert staged reading by the stupendous company of musical theater stars who call themselves Musical Theatre Guild—for the first time in (I hate to admit it) forty-eight years.

Based on Patrick (Auntie Mame) Dennis’s novel of the same name, Little Me charts the life course of a certain Belle Schlumpfert, a sweet young thing born in 1900 and raised on the wrong side of the tracks in Venezuela, Illinois. A chance meeting with right-side-of-the-tracks rich boy Noble Eggleston sets Belle on a quest to acquire “wealth, culture, and social position.” Unfairly accused of murdering a cranky millionaire she befriends, Belle’s tabloid fame propels her into the world of vaudeville, where she falls for French chanteur Val du Val. Accidentally impregnated by childhood pal George Musgrove, Belle meets and marries soldier Fred Poitrine, thereby becoming Belle Poitrine. (That’s French for “beautiful bosom.”) Fred’s death from a “serious digit wound” makes Belle a widow and sends her back to the arms of an amnesiac Val, whom she marries. A transatlantic voyage on the doomed SS Gigantic takes Val’s life (he forgot how to swim), Belle and fellow passenger Noble surviving. Hollywood soon calls, film director Otto Schnizler turning Belle into an overnight star, after which, in Monte Carlo, she is made Countess Zoftig by a certain Prince Cherney who (what else?) dies. The result of all this social climbing is that Belle does indeed attain her trifecta of goals. As for whether she attains true love, well, for that you’ll just have to see Little Me.

Oops. That’s right. One-night-only events don’t repeat themselves, so only those fortunate enough to have attended last night’s show know the answer, which of course is “Yes.”

Little Me isn’t an easy show to stage. The Broadway original featured a cast of thirty-six playing more than three dozen roles, seven of them star turns by comedic legend Caesar. About a dozen of its songs are big production numbers. (No wonder Fosse scored his fourth Best Choreography Tony.) And it’s got a lot of book, enough book to run close to three hours.

That’s why the simple fact that MTG managed to rehearse this behemoth in their Equity-allotted twenty-five hours and stage it virtually without a hitch is reason for celebration. That it made for some sparkling, often hilarious (if overlong) musical theater magic is even more reason to cheer.

If Little Me is rarely staged these days, one of the biggest reasons is a simple one. There are few performers capable of filling Sid Caesar’s shoes. (The first of two Broadway revivals divided Caesar’s roles between Victor Garber and James Coco.) Fortunately, the phenomenal Jason Graae is just such a performer, and not only did Graae give seven inspired performances, he did so with seemingly scarcely a glance at the script which “concert staged reading” actors are required to hold. Add to that some brilliant adlibbing and you have a performance that alone ought to inspire a fully-staged revival with Graae a guaranteed award nominee, if not downright winner.

As he has in numerous previous MTG productions, director/choreographer Todd Nielsen managed the impossible in two-dozen-plus-one hours, his inventiveness matched by the all-around terrific work of his cast of seventeen (lots of double and triple roles), who not only had to learn the usual blocking, harmonies, and virtually off-book line readings, but probably had more fancy footwork to master than in any MTG show in recent memory.

Belle was brought to life by the captivating Jennifer Malenke, who had as much as if not more stage time than Graae, a dozen songs to sing, and tons of dialog. Malenke looked and sounded stunning, never more so than in her gorgeous rendition of “Poor Little Hollywood Star.” (Unfortunately Simon’s book has Belle perform the power ballad in in front of a series of comic headlines and theater marquees, something future productions might want to rethink.)

Telling Belle’s story was a delightful Eileen Barnett as “Older Belle,” her duet of the title song side-by-side Malenke as her younger self one of the evening’s highlights. Triple-threat Robert Pieranunzi scored as George, getting his own show-stopping song-and-dance number “I’ve Got Your Number,” originated on Broadway by a Tony-nominated Swen Swenson.

Speaking of songs, there’s not a “forgotten” Broadway show that has a better bunch of them, including “The Other Side Of The Tracks,” “Deep Down Inside,” “Be A Performer,” “Boom Boom,” “Here’s To Us,” and the production’s biggest hit, “Real Live Girl.”

Supporting roles were uniformly well-played: a blousy/haughtyPamela Hamill as Belle’s hooker Mama and Noble’s snooty one; a buff John Racca as Patrick Dennis; scene-stealing Joe Hart and Roy Leake, Jr. as showbiz entrepreneurs Bernie and Benny Buchsbaum; Lowe Taylor as Noble’s blue-blooded fiancée Ramona; Sean Clifford as the apple polishing Brucey; Matthew Patrick Davis as Pinchley’s goody-goody son Junior; Shauna Markey as Pinchley’s secretary; Renee Brna as Pinchley’s nurse; 1962 Broadway Original Cast member S. Marc Jordan as Prince Cherney’s doctor; and Marc C. Reis, Roland Rusinek, and Heather Nichole White, like the all of the above in a bevy of cameo roles.

Musical direction kudos go out to Alby Potts, leading the nine-piece orchestra on piano. Supervising an even greater number of costumes than usual were A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes. Judi Lewis deserves applause for her hair, wig, and makeup design. Larry Raben was associate coordinator, Art Brickman production stage manager, and Danielle DeMasters and Tim Miller assistant stage managers. The entire production was coordinated by Jeffrey Christopher Todd.

In fact, if there was anything to criticize in last night’s show, it was simply that there was just too much of it, even after a certain amount of snipping. A two-hour-long first act is too long for any show, and if attention tended to wane during the last thirty minutes of Act One, it was through no fault of those on stage. Now, if only they could get Little Me down to two and a half hours.

Musical Theatre Guild’s 2010-2011 season concludes on June 13 with the tenth anniversary production of a show that debuted in L.A. before heading off-Broadway, Bat Boy—a personal favorite of this reviewer.

As for next season, which starts in September, it’s an exciting one indeed! The West Coast Premiere of 2006’s High Fidelity, with music by Next To Normal’s Tom Kitt; the 1956 Broadway hit Fanny; 2005’s Little Women; William Finn’s exquisite 1998 off-Broadway gem A New Brain, and 1975’s Civil War musical Shenandoah. I don’t plan on missing a one of them, and neither should you!

–Steven Stanley
April 18, 2011

Alex Theatre, Glendale.

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