In its 74 years, Chee-Chee has garnered little respect -- and, until now, not one revival. Richard Rodgers himself always insisted he never wanted to write it; he was suckered into it by Hart and librettist Herbert Fields, who were inexplicably drawn to the source material, Charles Pettit's 1927 novel The Son of the Grand Eunuch. The notion of an all-singing, all-dancing eunuch struck them as hilarious, and Rodgers went (he said) unwillingly along. The result broke a long string of Rodgers-Hart-Fields hits and remained a sore point for the 15-year duration of the stormy Rodgers-Hart partnership.
Well, now we get to see what all the fuss was about -- after a fashion. Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! series of vest-pocket musicals-in-concert has rescued Chee-Chee from the scrap heap. Minus the sumptuous production values that Herb Fields's dad Lew gave it, and with only a piano instead of a saxophone-heavy, late-'20s orchestration, we can't really experience Chee-Chee as bewildered 1920s audiences did. But we can plainly see an innovative and unusual piece for 1928, brazen in subject matter and truly odd in its chance-taking, characterful score.
We're in the emperor's palace in ancient Peking, where the Grand Eunuch, Li-Pi-Sao (Kati Kuroda), first servant to the king, is indulging in a little succession planning. He wasn't always a eunuch, it seems, and he has been permitted to will his post to his son, Li-Pi-Tchou (Steven Eng). The trouble is, Li-Pi-Tchou is utterly besotted with his lovely wife, Chee-Chee (Diane Veronica Phelan), and has no wish to follow in his father's testosterone-challenged footsteps. The young couple flees the palace in a donkey cart and wanders incognito through the countryside, where they are besieged by lusty and avaricious Tartars and Konghouses. Meanwhile, Li-Pi-Sao's lively daughter, Li-Li-Wee (Hazel Anne Raymundo), having reached her 16th birthday, has decided to join the house of concubines -- but is, instead, wooed by Prince Tao-Tee (Doug Wynn), allowing for all of those second-couple comic numbers that Rodgers and Hart felt obliged to write. Everything ends happily (in contrast to Pettit's novel; see Peter Filichia's November 15 TheaterMania column on this subject), though Li-Pi-Tchou is repeatedly flogged by marauding villains and Chee-Chee is cast into the Gallery of Torments, where she is lyrically menaced by Theft, Lust, Avarice, Murder, Drunkenness, and Infidelity. (It must have been an eye-popping sequence in 1928; here, in relative mufti, it doesn't make much sense.)
Audiences coddled by the unchallenging likes of Good News and No, No, Nanette evidently didn't know what to make of this bizarre brew of exoticism, pageantry, and castration jokes at its premiere. And while some critics applauded R&H for the adventurousness of their musical presentation, more considered Chee-Chee smutty and misconceived, with a needlessly wordy book. "Tries clumsily to be dirty and succeeds only in being tedious," griped George Jean Nathan. And in a review entitled "NASTY! NASTY!" the London Observer critic sneered, "I did not believe any act could possibly be duller than the first -- until I saw the second."
It must be said that Chee-Chee is, to some extent, guilty as charged. Fields's way of writing Chinese dialogue is generally to use words of four syllables where those of two would do, or to weigh a slang phrase down with excess verbiage: "Let me wrack my honorable brain," for instance. And "Every time you open your worthy mouth, you place your illustrious foot in it" is actually trotted out twice, to diminishing returns. (To be fair, Fields had just done something similar in his aphorism-bending libretto for A Connecticut Yankee, and audiences ate it up; so the device must have seemed like a success formula.)
But beyond its sheer wordiness and lack of genuine wit, Fields's book contains structural curiosities. It's as episodic as Candide, with its young lovers encountering this obstacle, then that, then this, without ever really learning anything along the way. When Li-Pi-Tchou is sentenced to a hundred lashes (twice) or when Chee-Chee willingly dispenses sexual favors to some muscled bully to get out of some scrape (thrice), the episodes are meant to be comic but come off as merely unpleasant. As for the eunuch jokes: After the novelty of seeing eunuchs in a musical comedy wears off (which takes about 10 minutes), they're more gauche than funny. For hilarious eunuchs, you have to wait for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
This very Chinese story was encased in an original production that was about as Chinese as Coca-Cola, with Peggy-Ann star Helen Ford as Chee-Chee and such other Rodgers and Hart stalwarts as Philip Loeb and Betty Starbuck in prominent roles. (In this regard, Musicals Tonight! has bested the original, heavily raiding Pan Asian Rep for talent.) Still, it's hard to understand how critics or audiences -- or Rodgers, for that matter -- can have failed to appreciate the beauty and audacity of this score. It's a Rodgers and Hart work that sounds, and behaves, like no other. True, there are the expected and irresistible R&H charm ballads -- the bubbly descending fourths of "Dear, Oh Dear," the lilt of "I Must Love You" -- and the showy Hart rhymes (my favorites are "Mandarin/gander in" and "appetite/wrap it tight").
But convention goes out the window in "Better Be Good to Me," whose phrases are an unheard-of seven measures long. Li-Pi-Tchou's "I Wake at Morning" is lush and ecstatic, more like the Rodgers and Hammerstein of Flower Drum Song than the impudent Rodgers and Hart of the 1920s. Hart has naughty fun with "Just a Little Thing," which is about exactly what it sounds like in this genital-snipping plot; and when a haughty owl (an amusing Rose Bae) blocks the lovers' path in an enchanted wood, she gets an oddball little song of her own. Most bizarrely, many of the 30-odd musical numbers are only a few bars long, the better to keep the action flowing and give the piece a through-composed feel. It's suitably exotic, too: Rodgers, while not striving for an authentic Oriental sound, does experiment with Ravel-like tone clusters and chord progressions. (You won't hear it in this production, but he put in his own little castration joke: When Li-Pi-Tchou was led off for eunuch-izing, the orchestra originally quoted from "The Nutcracker Suite." Rodgers professed eternal gratitude to the few in the 1928 audience who got it.)
Throughout the score, and however much Rodgers may have disparaged Chee-Chee in later years, you can sense the joy with which he and Hart went about upending musical-comedy convention. Very little in Chee-Chee would have been easily extractable for dance bands or radio versions, and what other R&H score contains song titles like "Impassive Buddha" or "Holy of Holies?" Not that it's all wonderfully integrated into the text; one of Rodgers's loveliest melodies, "Singing a Love Song," is a mere scene-changer for three minor characters. (Hart later outfitted it with a better lyric and it was successfully reworked for Ruth Etting as "I Still Believe in You" in Simple Simon.) Still, the authors worked harder to match song with story than most of their contemporaries did -- and, of course, for sheer songwriting virtuosity, few of those contemporaries could approach Rodgers and Hart.
This Musicals Tonight! production, like most, is low on budget and high on onstage talent, with especially winning work from the strong-voiced and personable Eng. He has a pretty and pert Chee-Chee in Phelan. And I don't know whose idea it was to cast Ms. Kuroda as a eunuch but, musically and visually, it works just fine; the gender ambiguity gets so thick, at times you forget you're watching a woman playing an emasculated man. Thomas Mills's staged-reading direction is, shall we say, unobtrusive, and he is at a loss as to how to get the inert book scenes moving. But we can only be grateful to him and to Mel Miller for giving us a Chee-Chee as close to the original as possible, warts and all. Its book is not much worse than any other musical-comedy opus of 1928, and its fantastically inventive score is a revelation. While other, better-funded musical-revival outfits are serving up the surefire likes of The Pajama Game, Miller & Co. offer a true rarity -- and pretty fetchingly at that. See it now or risk waiting another 74 years.