Christine Ebersole and Henry Gibsonin A Connecticut Yankee(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Christine Ebersole and Henry Gibson
in A Connecticut Yankee
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
In less than a decade, the City Center Encores! series has become an indispensable part of the New York cultural scene with its usually excellent, semi-staged concert versions of classic American musicals. Though the series has sometimes stumbled--its L'il Abner, for example, was problematic--Encores! has done a great job overall with musicals from Allegro to Promises, Promises. The series' Chicago was so phenomenal that it transferred to Broadway, where it's still running. In sum, Encores! has a stellar track record; so it is devoutly to be hoped that this past weekend's production of A Connecticut Yankee represents a mere stumble rather than a wrong turn for the series under its new artistic director.

Based on a novel by Mark Twain, and first seen on Broadway in 1927, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's A Connecticut Yankee is a melodious trifle about a contemporary (i.e., mid-20th century) guy from Hartford, Connecticut with a fondness for the lore of Camelot who finds himself transported back to the days of King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot, and the Round Table after being conked on the head with a champagne bottle by his peeved fiancée. The Encores! presentation of the show incorporated seven songs written for a revised version of Yankee that opened on Broadway in 1943, as well as Don Walker's swingy orchestrations for that revisal--though for some reason, according to program, the show's "contemporary" scenes were set in 1927.

While Herbert Fields' book for the show is, of course, "dated," A Connecticut Yankee--like so many other shows of its time--can provide great enjoyment for modern audiences if performed, directed, and choreographed by people who understand the style that's called for. Unfortunately, the Encores! Yankee came up short in several areas, beginning with its leading man. Steven Sutcliffe, so wonderful as the passionate, rebellious Brother in Ragtime, was woefully miscast as Martin Barrett--a role that requires a light, breezy comic presence and oodles of charm. Even Sutcliffe's rich, intense singing voice seemed an imperfect fit here, beautiful though it may be on its own terms. To add insult to injury, the actor was made to look nerdy and unattractive in Yankee, with a haystack hairstyle and eyeglasses. (An interesting footnote to Sutcliffe's casting is the fact that he is Canadian; odd that Encores! should have gone so far afield to come up with someone less suitable for the role than any number of American musical theater actors who leap to mind.)

The remainder of the leading and featured performers might have made more of Yankee if they had been better directed. In the double role of Fay Morgan (Martin Barrett's witchy betrothed) and Morgan Le Fay (Camelot's femme fatale), Christine Ebersole stopped the show with her hilarious rendition of "To Keep My Love Alive," a song added for the 1943 Yankee in which Le Fay recounts how she "bumped off" all of her husbands; but Ebersole got precious few laughs before that big moment in the second act. Judith Blazer was more consistently winning as Alice Carter (the modern-day woman whom Barrett really loves) and Alisande (that woman's Arthurian counterpart), especially in her "Thou Swell" duet with Sutcliffe. Henry Gibson, famous for his appearances on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In," and Peter Bartlett, remembered fondly for his side-splitting antics Off-Broadway in Jeffrey and The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, were as comically erratic as Ebersole. As it turned out, the lion's share of the audience's focus went to the terrific dancing-singing couple Seán Martin Hingston and Nancy Lemenager as Sir Galahad/Gerald Gareth and Dame Evelyn/Evelyn Lane.

The fact that A Connecticut Yankee came to life in fits and starts--and that talented veterans like Ebersole, Gibson, and Bartlett often failed to perform at full throttle--was testimony to the inept direction of Susan H. Schulman, whose other New York discredits include the recent Broadway revival of The Sound of Music and the current Manhattan Theatre Club staging of Time and Again. However one feels about Schulman's past work, she has never been thought to have a flair for comedy. In A Connecticut Yankee, ancient but still potentially effective jokes and comic bits laid huge eggs due to poor timing and/or flat staging. Indeed, the selection of Schulman to helm Yankee is so inexplicable that one can't help wondering if the choice was made on the basis of theatrical cronyism rather than suitability for the job. (Jack Viertel, now in his first year as artistic director of Encores!, wrote the book for Time and Again. Presumably, he had something to do with Schulman's hiring for the Encores! assignment, but this director showed no more affinity for Yankee than she did for that other time-travel musical.)

Rob Ashford's choreography for Yankee was as uneven as the rest of the show: fine for the Hingston-Lemenager sequences but elsewhere trite and repetitive, even in the type of musical that doesn't exactly cry out for bold, inventive steps. The happiest news of the production is that The Coffee Club Orchestra, conducted as always by Rob Fisher, never sounded better--and the electronic amplification of the group was superior to what we've heard in past Encores! shows.

In closing, attention should be called to what seems to be an increased carelessness in choosing personnel for Encores! Almost since its inception, the series has been so well regarded that it has theoretically been able to secure top-drawer performers and production staff on short notice, especially since the rehearsal and performance period for each show is so brief. While it would be foolish for critics and/or audiences to expect stars like Patti LuPone and Martin Short in every Encores! presentation, it's fair to complain when the shows' leads not only lack star status but, for one reason or another, are ill suited to their roles. Last year, Encores! offered Wonderful Town with two fantastic women (Donna Murphy and Laura Benanti) opposite a man (Richard Muenz) who has been in vocal crisis for years. Also last season, Encores! gave us On a Clear Day You Can See Forever with the heavenly Kristin Chenoweth as Daisy Gamble, but with Peter Friedman--who simply couldn't sing the role properly--as Daisy's psychiatrist. And in this season's opener, A Connecticut Yankee, we were given the strangely miscast Sutcliffe under the direction of someone who brought almost nothing to the table. Let's hold our collective breath and pray that the upcoming Encores! productions of Bloomer Girl and Hair will be staffed with more sensitivity.