Jennifer Laura Thompson andBrian d'Arcy James in Pardon My English(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jennifer Laura Thompson and
Brian d'Arcy James in Pardon My English
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Don't expect much from me in the way of illumination about the plot of Pardon My English as presented by the Encores! series. This is the 1933 Gershwin brothers-Herbert Fields-Morrie Ryskind flop described by lyricist Ira Gershwin in his Lyrics on Several Occasions as "a headache from start to finish." The libretto was reworked so often during the musical's extensive out-of-town tryouts that there was never an "official" version. Instead, there was such contentiousness that, by the time the vehicle reached Manhattan, Morrie Ryskind had already demanded that his name be removed from the credits.

For the surprisingly delightful and altogether entertaining treatment currently at hand, which David Ives had the undoubtedly prickly assignment of stapling together, Ryskind's name has been restored -- as it probably should be, since so many of the show's non-sequitur gags sound like dotty outpourings from Ryskind's non-sequitur mind. Also restored is the title tune, which was cut on the road in 1932. Why? Ira Gershwin has offered a contrite explanation: When he heard that the score had been found in the Secaucus warehouse to which it had been sent to die an unmourned death, he said to the indefatigable musical comedy archeologist Robert Kimball, "I hope you didn't find the lyric to the title song because it is the worst lyric I ever wrote."

It has to have been Ives, cosmetic script surgeon that he is, who put a line into the mouth of one frustrated character that somehow banishes all resistance to the musical's polished inanity. It goes, "I can't follow this plot enough already." (Maybe it was Ives who also suggested giving a gun moll a violin case from which a violin, rather than a machine gun, is produced.) The unfollowable Pardon My English plot is, to pick up on Ira Gershwin's remark, a headache in more ways than one. The focal character is seen first as a tough Dresden speakeasy owner named Golo Schmidt who, when knocked on the noggin with a champagne bottle (or any other blunt or non-blunt instrument), becomes an Englishman calling himself Michael Bramleigh. Golo/Bramleigh (Brian d'Arcy James) is concussed so often during the proceedings that his brain seems to be stuck in a revolving door. While switching personalities, he also switches romantic allegiance between Polish gun moll Gita Gobel (Emily Skinner) and Frieda Bauer (Jennifer Laura Thompson), daughter of the Dresden police chief.

Before too long, the split-personality protagonist is shifting between marrying Frieda and kidnapping her for ransom. Swirling around him in their own disparate stupors -- and not so much complicating the plot as standing in for it -- are police chief Bauer himself (Rob Bartlett), Bramleigh's chum Dickie Carter (Don Stephenson), perky parlormaid Magda (Felicia Finley), Dresden mayor and chief psychiatrist Adolph Steiner (Tom Alan Robbins), and a psychoanalyst sextet (with an emphasis on the "sex"), one of whom is a dead ringer for Sigmund Freud.

Forget about how they all interact and the contrivance used to set the head banging right so that three pairs of lovers can stand blissfully together at the finale. Forget about everything but the book's incorporating some of the send-up-worthy concerns of the early Depression years -- the growing popularity of psychoanalysis, the spate of gangster films that were charming and alarming the country, the mystery of amnesia, and, of course, prohibition. It's the show's conceit that Golo's speakeasy doesn't serve liquor; rather, it dispenses banned soft drinks because, according to the dizzy script, "The German government thought people weren't drinking enough beer and wine. You've got Prohibition, we've got inhibition." Messrs. Gershwin, Gershwin, Ryskind, and Fields got their kicks from spoofing the headlines much as Messrs. Leno, Letterman, Maher, and Miller do now on a much more immediate basis.

Remember that, even after Show Boat, musicals for the most part continued to consist of low-brow gags strung between magnificent new songs written for exuberant personalities to sing. At the time when Pardon My English was laboriously thunk up, George and Ira Gershwin -- on whom the poverty-crying producer Alex A. Aarons and co-producer Vinton Freedley were relying for raising capitalization -- were just a year past winning the Pulitzer Prize for Of Thee I Sing. They couldn't have been a hotter commodity. Despite Ira Gershwin's demurrals, the Pardon My English songs have plenty to recommend them. "Isn't It a Pity?" is still sung today by cabaret artists who know a persuasive love song when they hear it. And "The Lorelei" -- in which the title term is rhymed with "most immoral eye" -- and "My Cousin in Milwaukee" aren't entirely obscure. Another ditty that tickles the funny bone is "Freud and Jung and Adler," during which the addled Adlerians exhort, "Just let us make one diagnosis / We'll know vas los is." And another transcendent love song is "Tonight," which actually consists of two counterpointed waltzes of a sort unusual in the Gershwins' canon.

Emily Skinner and the cast of Pardon My English(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Emily Skinner and the cast of Pardon My English
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Because there are so many triple-threat musical comedy performers in Manhattan wanting to be showcased, Encores! -- which has turned itself into an institution -- has its pick of a bumper crop. Director Gary Griffin has picked well. Brian d'Arcy James is the foremost selection this outing. A virile leading man who hasn't had the chance to lead much (he was last in the ill-fated Sweet Smell of Success), James gives the kind of crisp, on-the-mark rendition of Golo and Bramleigh that could do for him what One Touch of Venus did for Melissa Errico. To the question "where's he been all our lives?" the answer has to be: perfecting the genuine emotion and immaculate phrasing he brings to songs, the flashing eyes and winning smirk, the funny walks. Dark, short, and intense, James as Golo looks as if he has studied the skills and instincts that Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson turned into star quality.

The rest of the cast, with Griffin proficiently helming them and Rob Ashford choreographing them, provide a gilt frame for James. (The City Center stage -- which boasts John Lee Beatty's spare speakeasy, Martin Pakledinaz's chic '30s wardrobe, and Ken Billington's apt lighting -- already has actual, double gilt frames.) Emily Skinner, bolder and brassier than ever, gets to do "The Lorelei" and "My Cousin From Milwaukee" -- and she maximizes them. She also plays well with Rob Bartlett, who's turning himself into a second banana with Jackie Gleason-like bombast in his soul. Lanky Don Stephenson and larky, lovely, versatile Felicia Finley light up their corners of the stage; Finley gets the evening's biggest laugh with a so-awful-it's-hilarious pun. And Tom Alan Robbins tosses off several Ryskind-Fields-Ives comments with great flair.

The odds were against anyone making anything of Pardon My English, but the enterprising Encores! team has done as well as possibly could be done with the material. Large bouquets all around for that. Additional bouquets because the presentation of shows like this one is just what Encores! should be about. Too often, it isn't; this time, it radiantly is.