Here’s a question for Los Angeles area musical theater lovers. Of the two Tony-winning musicals of 1951, Guys And Dolls and Call Me Madam, which one have you seen over and over again and which one have you never seen—or at least not until last night at Glendale’s Alex Theatre?

The answer to the second part of the question is, of course, Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, the mostly forgotten winner of three Tonys (for Best Score, Best Actress, and Best Featured Actor), a musical gem/chestnut that hundreds of Angelinos got to experience last night in Concert Staged Reading form, thanks to the oh-so talented triple-threats of L.A.’s Musical Theatre Guild.

Unlike the timeless Guys And Dolls, or the equally oft-revived late-‘40s/early-‘50s classics Kiss Me Kate, South Pacific, and The King And I, Call Me Madam features a book (by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse*) that is too much a period piece (or dated if you will) to make it Broadway revival-worthy or the likely offering of even the most old-fashioned Civic Light Opera or regional theater.

Still, with song standards like “It’s A Lovely Day Today” and “You’re Just In Love” (along with the lesser known but equally hummable “Mrs. Sally Adams,” “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball,” “The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me),” and “Something To Dance About” and a role like that of the titular Madam Ambassador Sally Adams, Call Me Madam is well worth the kind of look-see provided by Musical Theatre Guild, a not-quite-fully-staged but absolutely terrifically performed book-in-hand “reading” that is the next best thing to a cost-prohibitive major revival.

 Set sometime during the Truman administration, Call Me Madam introduces us to Mrs. Sally Adams (Eileen Barnett), a well-heeled Oklahoma widow with a reputation for throwing the best parties in Washington D.C. but a complete lack of experience in the diplomatic corps. Notwithstanding, the glamorous, exuberant matron soon finds herself appointed ambassador to Europe’s teensy-weensiest country, the Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg (whose citizens she assumes must be Dutch since they come from a Duchy), with handsome young press attaché Kenneth Gibson (Jeffrey Christopher Todd) assigned as her aide.

(Note: There actually was a very real party-throwing Madam Ambassador to Luxembourg named Pearl Mesta, on whose adventures abroad the writers winkingly insist Call Me Madam was not based.)

Once arrived in Lichtenburg, Sally is welcomed to this postage-stamp-sized, postage-stamp-producing country by foreign minister Cosmo Constantine (Gordon Goodman), a dapper gentleman bent on responding to Sally’s “Can You Use Any Money Today?” with a big fat “No!”

 Meanwhile somewhere offstage, Lichtenburg’s ruling Duke and Duchess are seeking a wealthy suitor to woo and wed their beautiful (and very sheltered) daughter Princess Maria (Robin De Lano), the better to fatten the royal exchequer. What they haven’t counted on is for Her Royal Highness to fall in love at first sight with commoner Kenneth, with whom she is barred by law and custom from speaking to (or even being unofficially introduced to) , though not thank goodness forbidden to sing (or fall in love with) to the music and lyrics of “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”

Like another great lady of American Musical Theater (Hello, Dolly!’s Dolly Levi to be more specific), Mrs. Sally Adams can’t seem to stop herself from putting her hand in here, there, and in everyone else’s business, including Lichtenburg’s, and in so doing Madam Ambassador gets herself in one heck of a pickle with the governments of both the U.S.A. and the Grand Duchy.

Clearly, what book writers Lindsay and Crouse are giving us is hardly the kind of plot likely to stand the test of time, rooted as it is in a pre-Eisenhower America that most contemporary theatergoers have probably only heard about in school. (Songs like “Washington Square Dance” and the Eisenhower salute “We Like Ike” seem particularly dated in the 2010s.)

Fortunately, under the assured direction of John Bowab (whose musical theater credits date back to the 1960s if not before), Call Me Madam has much more going for it than its storyline—first and foremost its songs, infectiously performed by Barnett, Goodman, De Lano, Todd, and the rest of the MTG cast and chorus. There are also a number of bouncy dance numbers choreographed by Jane Lanier, making Call Me Madam one of the danciest MTG “readings” ever.

And speaking of superlatives, has any MTG star ever had to carry more weight on his or her shoulders than the divine Barnett, playing a character whose creators keep onstage pretty much throughout, the better to allow its original audiences to get their money’s worth of Merman? Unlike the belters who’ve tackled Sally in the past (Elaine Stritch, Tyne Daly, and Karen Morrow come to mind), Barnett’s more legit voice makes the Berlin classics originated by Ethel sound fresh and new. The MTG staple also proves herself a deft comedienne, and looks gorgeous in a series of gowns by A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes.

Goodman follows his stellar work in Shenandoah with a delightful comedic turn as Cosmo, a role which shows off those splendid Goodman pipes as he introduces Sally to “Lichtenburg” and joins voices with Barnett in “Marrying For Love.”

As for the ingénues in love, young musical theater leads don’t come any better (or better looking) than De Lano and Todd, perfect choices for just about any of musical theater’s classic romantic couples. (The leads in How To Succeed, Oklahoma!, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie, She Loves Me, and Sweet Charity are just the first half-a-dozen couples that come to mind.) De Lano’s deliciously clueless Princess Maria and Todd’s nerdily dashing Kenneth are perfectly served by this dynamite duo, whose duet of “It’s A Lovely Day” is lovely indeed. De Lano and a hilariously silly Kevin Symons as Sebastian Sebastian also get to instruct Sally in the dance the Lichtenbergers call “The Ocarina,” while Todd and Barnett steal the show with the counterpart melodies of the Berlin classic “You’re Just In Love.”

Christopher Carothers is a dryly amusing chargé d’affaires Pemberton Maxwell (who makes the diplomatic faux pas of not calling Mrs. Adams Madam). Steven Hack, David Holmes, and Mark C. Reis are the scene-stealing trio of Congressman Wilkins (“I’m Republican!”) and Senators Gallagher and Brockbank, who get one of Berlin’s lesser but still entertaining numbers “They Like Ike.” Ensemble member Jennifer Shelton is as lovely and talented as ever, and the venerable Helen Geller and Holmes make a hilarious eleventh-hour appearance as the Duke and Duchess of Lichtenburg.

Helping to make Call Me Madam one of the toe-tappingest MTG musicals ever are the triple-threat sextet of Jill Marie Burke, Nicholas Gutierrez, Daron O’Donnell, Cody Rogers, Daniel Switzer, and Estevan Valdes, who make “Washington Square Dance,” “The Ocarina,” and “Something To Dance About” something to stand up and cheer about.

Once again thanks go out to David Lee, whose generosity allows MTG audiences to hear Berlin’s songs performed to a live nine-piece onstage orchestra, conducted by musical director/pianist Eddy Clement.

Costume designer Schoenberg and assistant costume designer Jessica Olson deserve kudos for the cast’s gorgeous gowns and such, with a number of characters getting one or more costume change (rare for an MTG reading).

Erik McEwen is production coordinator, Art Brickman production stage manager, and Ricarda McKissock and Jessica Standifer assistant stage manager.

Aside from one brief mike problem, Monday’s “reading” (rehearsed in a mere 25 hours per Actors Equity rules) went off like clockwork, par for the course for these MTG pros and a terrific learning experience for a few young guest artists being shot out of the canon for the first time.

And for those who may have missed Call Me Madam in Glendale, the good news is that one more performance remains, at Thousand Oaks’ Civic Arts Plaza this coming Sunday afternoon. This is one road trip any true musical theater buff will want to be taking. (And Ventura County is a whole lot closer than Lichtenburg!)

*concert adaptation by Bill Russell and Charles Repole

–Steven Stanley
November 19, 2012
Photos: Alan Weston

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