Musical theater lovers can once again thank Ken and Dottie Reiner and Musical Theatre West’s Reiner Reading Series for bringing back to life a musical theater gem grown too obscure to inspire a fully staged production. (After all, given the choice of the two Tony-winning musicals of 1951, Guys And Dolls and Call Me Madam, which one would you choose to program as part of an upcoming season?)
Fortunately for Broadway buffs, MTW gave an SRO crowd of Irving Berlin-Ethel Merman lovers the chance to experience Call Me Madam for one night only this past Sunday, and though this musical chestnut is dated to say the least, the Tony Award triple winner (for Best Score, Best Actress, and Best Featured Actor) proved well worth catching, both for its Hit Parade of Berlin classics and for the star performance of Diane Vincent in the role made famous by La Merman on both stage and screen.
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 tailor-made for a not-quite-fully-staged but delightfully performed book-in-hand “reading.”
Set sometime during the Truman administration, Call Me Madam introduces us to Mrs. Sally Adams (Diane Vincent), 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 (Jordan Lamoureux) 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 (Michael G. Hawkins), 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 (Ashley Fox Linton), 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.)
What’s not at all dated are those Berlin’s music and lyrics as performed by Vincent, Hawkins, Linton, Lamoreux, and a cast of some of the best musical theater performers in town.
Wearing both director’s and choreographer’s hats as he did with last year’s Kismet, Daniel A. Smith managed to whittle a Broadway cast of fifty-two down to an even dozen while keeping the entertainment value high, and though “Washington Square Dance,” “The Ocarina,” and “Something To Dance About” were less fully choreographed than they’d be in an actual production, it should be noted that the entire two-and-a-half-hour shebang was rehearsed in a mere twenty-five hours, per Actors Equity rules.
Southland musical theater staple Hawkins did his accustomed fine work as Cosmo, introducing Sally to his country in “Lichtenburg” and joining voices with Madam Sally Adams in “Marrying For Love.”
As for Call Me Madam’s young romantic leads, they don’t come any more lovely or charming than Linton and her handsome and equally charming partner in bicultural love Lamoureux, their duet of “It’s A Lovely Day” proving every bit as enchanting as you’d expect from this pair of rising young stars. Lamoureux, in particular, seemed transported from another era, the now eighty-nine-year-old Russell Nype brought back to his 1950s youth and vigor, gorgeous tenor intact.
James Campbell, Michael Dotson, and Jeffrey Landman provided considerable laughter as Congressman Wilkins (“I’m Republican!”) and Senators Brockbank and Gallagher, the three of whom get one of Berlin’s lesser but still entertaining numbers “They Like Ike.”
Marc Montminy did effective work as well in a quartet of roles including chargé d’affaires Pemberton Maxwell (who makes the diplomatic faux pas of not calling Mrs. Adams “Madam”) and Sebastian Sebastian, who instructs Sally in the dance the Lichtenbergers call “The Ocarina,” though I must confess to have found this bit of quadruple-casting a tad confusing at time.
Bona fide triple-threats Campbell, Jackie Cox, Dotson, Amy Glinskas, Landman, Montminy, Rebecca Morris, and Kirklyn Robinson executed one cameo after another as “The Cream Of Washington Society” and “The People Of The Grand Duchy Of Lichtenburg,” with an amusing eleven o’clock appearance by Montminy and Glinskas as the Grand Duke and Duchess.
Still, splendid supporting cast or not, there can be no Call Me Madam without a Madam to rival Ethel, and there’s probably no one in L.A. more qualified to fill those illustrious shoes than that “Nuttin’ But Hutton” gal herself, the divine Miss Vincent.
I concluded my review of November’s Little Me with a wish, that “the Reiner Reading Series might consider programming Call Me Madam next season providing Vincent is available to step into Ethel Merman’s shoes.”
That this wish came true a year ahead of schedule proved “Something To Dance About,” Vincent’s exuberance, charm, charisma, and power-packed vocals making for as stellar a concert staged reading performance as any Merman or Call Me Madam fan could possibly desire. In particular, Vincent’s renditions of “The Hostess With The Mostes’,” “Can You Use Any Money Today,” “Something To Dance About,” and her duets of “The Best Thing For You” opposite Hawkins and “You’re Just In Love” opposite Lamoureux made this reviewer wish that it was Vincent’s voice on the Broadway Revival recording and not the considerably less vocally blessed Tyne Daly’s.
Musical director Julie Lamouerux was blessed to have a full onstage orchestra
to provide backup, and though their average age appeared to hover around twenty or so, they sounded as absolutely terrific as an orchestra can sound with a sliver of rehearsal time.
The Reiner Reading Series is made possible by series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner and the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation. David Lamoureux and Michael Betts are Reiner Reading Series producers. Daniel Thomas was stage manager, Jessica Westerfield 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.
Reiner Reading Series readings are one-performance-only events, meaning that those who missed Sunday’s Call Me Madam got left at the dock, so to speak. With revival readings of Carnival, The Goodbye Girl, and Busker Alley set to complete the 2013-14 season, musical theater lovers are advised to reserve passage without delay. The SS Reiner Reading Series only sails once per show, and I for one plan to be on board.
PS: Diane Vincent as Mame, anyone?
University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.
January 26, 2014