It takes directorial brilliance (and balls) to take a Broadway show with a cast of thirty-six playing more than three dozen roles and stage it with a mere nine performers and no set design other than one comfy armchair and pull it off, but pull it off director David Lamoureux and his cast of nine did on Sunday as Musical Theatre West opened its Reiner Reading Series’ fourth season with the 1962 Broadway gem Little Me.
With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and book by Neil Simon, Broadway’s Little Me starred the one-and-only 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 this reviewer as a wee youngster.
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. Too late. One-night-only events don’t repeat themselves, so only those fortunate enough to have attended Sunday’s show know the answer.
Little Me is hardly an easy show to stage in any form. The Broadway original did indeed feature three dozen performers, with seven of its roles brought to hilarious life by comedic legend Caesar. About a dozen of its songs were 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 when last seen.
And here’s where director Lamoureux worked his theatrical magic, not only finding a star worthy of filling Sid Caesar’s shoes and two divine leading ladies, but managing to have every supporting role but one played by a grand total of five supremely talented young performers. In addition, trims in the book and a focus on story-and-song rather than song-and-dance brought the whole thing in in less than two and a half hours including intermission.
Lamoureux’s biggest casting coup was in securing the services of recent Ovation Award winner Jeff Skowron to play all those Sid Caesar roles as well as “Patrick Dennis,” to whom the older Belle dictates her life story. Skowron’s Best Actor-winning role in Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry’s Parade showcased Skowron in dramatic mode. Little Me proves (as did his performances in How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Silence The Musical) that this is one triple-threat every bit as adept at comedy as he is at tragedy, making each and every one of his characterizations in Little Me a winner, from rich boy Noble to mean old Mr. Pinchley to “four-eyed” Fred Poitrine to Yves Montand stand-in Val Du Val (and everyone else in between). Also, having Skowron as Patrick made it seem as if Belle’s ghost-writer was imagining himself as all the men in her life, a stroke of Lamoureux genius. As for those Jeff Skowron pipes, they don’t get any more Broadway-caliber.
It’s hard to imagine anyone more perfect for the role of Belle than Ashley Fox Linton, as delightful a comedienne as she is a powerhouse singer (whether legit or in Broadway belt mode), as her gorgeous rendition of “Poor Little Hollywood Star” made amply clear. As for Diane Vincent, though the role of Belle Sr. had her mostly sitting stage right and observing the proceedings, the recent Scenie-winning star of Nuttin’ But Hutton, sang and acted the part with so much pizzazz, the Reiner Reading Series might consider programming Call Me Madam next season providing Vincent is available to step into Ethel Merman’s shoes. (Not surprisingly, the two Belles’ “Little Me” was duet magic.)
Playing George (the “other man” in Belle’s life) was the oh-so talented Marc Ginsburg, transformed from The Producers’ nerdy Leo Bloom to handsome leading man, and though the role is a small one, it gave Ginsburg the chance to show off some sensational singing in “I’ve Got Your Number.”
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.”
Little Me’s every single remaining role was played by the phenomenal fivesome of Kristen Lamoureux, Norman Large, Teya Patt, Daniel A. Smith, and Adam Trent, making for a lot of inspired doubling and tripling and quadrupling of roles.
Large made his scene-stealingest impressions in female mode as Belle’s blousy hooker Momma and Noble’s haughty, snooty mater Mrs. Eggleston. (Kudos to wig stylist Anthony Gagliardi!) Smith and Trent were perhaps even more scene-stealing as showbiz entrepreneurs Bennie and Bernie Buchsbaum, their “Be A Performer” an Act One showstopper. Trent scored too as the apple-polishing Brucey and as Pinchley’s goody-goody son Junior, and Smith as an entire household of servants. Lamoureux’s roles as Noble’s blue-blooded fiancée Ramona and Val Du Val’s Collette showcased the delightful Scenie-winning star of Reiner Reading Series’ On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. As for Teya Patt, is there anything this triple-threat can’t do, including her recent Best Lead Actress Scenie-winning dramatic turn in A Bright Light Called Day?
Musical direction kudos go out to Corey Hirsch, leading the reading’s terrific live orchestra on piano. Basic black costuming allowed players to create character after character without the need for wardrobe changes, with colors reserved for the two Belles, another of Lamoureux’s inspired choices.
The Reiner Reading Series is made possible by series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, and Kathryn Baker Campbell. David Lamoureux and Michael Betts are Reiner Reading Series producers. David Nestor was stage manager, Alex Jordan sound engineer, Ben Karasik crew chief, and Mary Ritenhour production manager. And a round of applause as always to Musical Theatre West Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman.
In reviewing Musical Theatre Guild’s 2011 reading of Little Me, I wrote: “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.”
Talk about a wish coming true!
I had a perfectly marvelous time revisiting Little Me, director Lamoureux and company proving that less can indeed be more when you’ve got Jeff Skowron on board and a splendiferous cast lending their support. Lamoureux’s stripped-down-to-basics re-envisioning of Little Me would make it a perfect choice for a fully-staged L.A. revival. How about it MTW?
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.
November 24, 2013