As Guy Holden, an American writer in London who falls in love with an unhappily married blonde and complicates her already complicated divorce, Paul Castree -- red of hair and light of voice -- has an appealing diffidence and naturalness that act as a counterweight to the daffy goings-on and the wacky characters around him. Beyond that, the Astaire resemblance ends. If you don't have an Astaire, you can't have a Gay Divorce; what you get instead is a musical written and set in a long-ago era when nice women got divorces by compromising themselves with paid "correspondents." Most of the show's attempted humor springs from this premise, and most of it falls flat on its antiquated face.
This revival will be of interest mainly to those who want to compare the stage original with RKO's readily available 1934 film version, the second pairing of Astaire with Ginger Rogers and the one that firmly established them as a team. The film is quite faithful to the show, at least verbally: It contains all of Dwight Taylor's inane plot and many of the best lines but it throws out the entire Porter score, retaining only "Night and Day." In the stage version, Guy's beloved Mimi still travels to a seaside hotel to ensconce herself with paid correspondent Tonetti and mistakes Guy for the lothario. Funny folk hang about: Among them are Guy's dithering lawyer friend, who is arranging the divorce; Mimi's wisecracking married girlfriend; and unctuous members of the hotel staff who perform irrelevant Porter numbers about Olga from the Volga, ugly Americans, and the Prince of Wales.
Some of this is fun. Tonetti has an amusing/touching sung interlude with his wife on the telephone and Hortense (Mimi's friend) growls through "Mr. and Mrs. Fitch," one of those follies-of-the-upper-class numbers that Porter wrote better than anybody. The movie was especially unwise in scrapping "After You, Who?", a superb Porter ballad. (Castree's pipes aren't really up to it.) And Guy and Mimi share a nice comic lament, "I've Got You on My Mind," though it's the type of plot song so poorly integrated that the characters accuse each other of things they can't possibly know about.
There are yards and yards of arid dialogue to suffer through between numbers -- a full half-hour of chat just to set up "Night and Day" -- and, when they do arrive, the numbers are staged modestly. This is probably the first Gay Divorce to contain virtually no dancing: A spin or two around the floor on "Night and Day," a quick waiters' bottle dance that poses no threat to Fiddler on the Roof, and that's about it. What's the point of doing an Astaire-Rogers musical where the feet are as leaden as the dialogue? (To director-choreographer Thomas Mills's credit, he does pace the show well and there are some cute staging ideas.)
Stephanie Lynge is poised and pretty as Mimi but, for a leading lady, she hasn't that much to do. The other performers are as inconsistent as their English accents: Cathy Newman's Hortense is spirited and displays spot-on timing but doesn't really belong to the '30s, while Tom Sellwood is unable to extricate himself from terrible dialogue as Guy's lawyer. The only flat-out-wonderful performance is Jedidiah Cohen's Tonetti, quite the equal of Erik Rhodes in the movie. Wearing an awful pencil moustache and a worse purple ascot, he brings great fake-Italian brio to malaprop lines like "My cook, she is goosed!" Cohen raises fatuousness to a high art in this role -- and he also can sing.
In a two-and-a-half-hour show wherein the song cues run to "good thing, sex" and the misogyny to "If there's one thing women are no good at, it's...most anything, really," the performers have to be fabulous and the direction phenomenal to get around the wan repartee. With its attractive, well-intentioned cast going through the paces of a libretto that's second-rate even for 1932, this production of Gay Divorce isn't without its charms. But it may be a good idea to place a restraining order on any future stage adaptations of Fred Astaire movie musicals.