First and foremost, there's the decidedly dopey book, loosely based on a little-known play called Breath of Spring. Feisty senior Ida Dodd (Olympia Dukakis, showing off her trademark trenchant delivery and a passable singing voice) returns after a prolonged absence to the fading, about-to-be-sold Sussex Arms Hotel on the Upper West Side. Having suddenly discovered the joys of kleptomania, she convinces a group of her senior citizen cohorts to join her in stealing furs that they will then sell to raise enough money to buy the Sussex and restore it to its former glory. Not a second of this is believable or particularly amusing, and David Thompson's concert adaptation thankfully pares down the show's inane book in order to focus on the score. (While far from the best work of Kander and Ebb, it has plenty going for it; I'm still humming the title tune this morning!)
As Melba (Tina Fabrique) announces immediately after the first number, 70, Girls, 70 is "a show within a show, a play within a play. We don't care about motivation. We're old enough to stop the show and talk when we want to, sing when we want to, and use Lorraine [the onstage piano player, here portrayed by Lalan Parrott] when we want to." This is exactly what happens. The cast members offer a series of vaudeville-inspired songs that sometimes comment on the plot and occasionally advance it but mostly seem to be little more than excuses to show off what they can do. It's a device that Kander and Ebb used, in different variations, far more effectively in both Cabaret and Chicago.
Even in the best of hands, 70, Girls, 70 might not register as anything more than a curiosity, but Kathleen Marshall's ultra-simple staging does little to mask the musical's shortcomings. In a more fully realized production, we might see a transformation of the show's principals from downtrodden seniors to reborn youngsters in old persons' bodies, but that metamorphosis is hard to accomplish when everyone starts the show in top-of-the-line clothing (William Ivey Long is the costume consultant) and nobody ever changes.
Yet, as Marshall has proven time and again, she can deliver the goods when it comes to choreography. In the title song, she has provided some pretty nifty moves for the shockingly spry 13-person ensemble, which includes such standouts as Harvey Evans, Diane Findlay, Ira Hawkins, and one-time MGM star Carleton Carpenter. As for the principals, it's a joy to see each of them get his or her moment in the spotlight. Carole Cook exhibits martini-dry wit and ageless glamour as Gert, belting out the final notes of "See the Light." Bob Dishy and the ever-wonderful Anita Gillette are adorable in "Do We?," the slightly naughty duet about sex after 60 for affianced couple Walter and Eunice. Fabrique and the equally big-voiced Mary Jo Catlett vocalize strongly in the infectious "Coffee in a Cardboard Cup," and the amazing George S. Irving flawlessly navigates the tongue-twisting lyrics of "The Caper." (He also gets major brownie points for being a good enough sport to spend a few minutes on stage in decidedly unappealing drag.) But top kudos belongs to the show's one non-AARP member, the superb Mark Price, and the still sublime Charlotte Rae, who literally stop the show with "Go Visit Your Grandmother."
In the final number, Ida urges everyone, whether young or old, to say "Yes" to living a full and exciting life. It's a message worth taking to heart and a song worth singing, but it doesn't have the power to turn 70, Girls, 70 into something more than a "maybe" night at the theater.