To kick off its 25th anniversary season, New York City Center Encores! opens not with a bang, but with a dozen assorted whimpers under the umbrella title Hey, Look Me Over! Celebrating musicals (and not necessarily beloved ones) that the series has yet to produce. This revue, created by longtime artistic director Jack Viertel, more or less consists of songs and scenes from cast albums that you'd likely overlook in favor of the hits — unless you're a flop-collecting aficionado like Man in Chair.
The protagonist of the beloved 2006 musical The Drowsy Chaperone, Man in Chair is a lonely theater fanatic who introduces us to his favorite eponymous flop. The premise of the revue Hey, Look Me Over! is that Man in Chair happens to be an Encores! subscriber, and he has deluged Viertel with so many angry letters about programming that Viertel has thrown up his hands in anger and given him a weekend at City Center to stage numbers from some of his favorite shows. Inside baseball? Definitely. But given that this is Encores!, the entire series is inside baseball.
Bob Martin, who cocreated and originated the role on Broadway, returns to Man in Chair's oversize beige cardigan and hasn't lost an ounce of his prickly wit and lacerating timing. But there's a reason why the shows included in Hey, Look Me Over! haven't been programmed into an Encores! season. You can shine them up, throw in as many stars as possible, and play their scores with an enormous orchestra, but they're still bad musicals. This concert should be a night of Greatest Hits, but instead, the bloated, nearly three-hour evening highlights a Worst Of.
The entire concept is inherently flawed: material is presented with no contextual information beyond who wrote a show and how long it ran on Broadway (spoiler alert: not long). Lugubrious, unnecessary scenes that are coated with a thick cloud of dust follow even duller songs. A detour into the world of Jerry Herman and Don Appell's Milk and Honey seemed to go on and on forever. Even Man in Chair made a joke at the expense of Frank Loesser and Lesser Samuels's Greenwillow, which is inexplicably given five boring songs — the most out of any show on hand — though Clifton Duncan sings a shattering rendition of "Never Will I Marry." On the creative end, Denis Jones's choreography is surprisingly mechanical and not particularly adaptive to the differing styles of shows. Marc Bruni's direction is virtually nonexistent, especially around the character "Man in Chair," who inexplicably spends the entire night standing.
On a similar note, though Vanessa Williams's two numbers from the Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg show Jamaica were a lot of sassy fun, they inadvertently pointed out another major problem with the piece as a whole — a lack of diversity among the various writing teams spotlighted. While there were shows, such as All American, that dealt with immigration issues, as well as a rendition of Irving Berlin and Emma Lazarus's "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor," and various instances of colorblind casting, the omission of the contributions of writers of color ignores an entire section of the American musical canon.
Glaring issues aside, the evening wasn't entirely dispiriting. Reed Birney warbling as best he could with an old country accent as an immigrant professor in All American was a delight. Bebe Neuwirth's "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Noël Coward's Sail Away earned its lengthy encore. And "Give My Regards to Broadway" from George M!, a large-scale tap number led by hoofer Clyde Alves, with assistance from a legendary, uncredited special guest who originated the role of George M. Cohan on Broadway, deservedly brought down the house.
Another major highlight was the Mack & Mabel section, featuring two perfectly cast stars: Douglas Sills as silent film director Mack Sennett and Alexandra Socha as soon-to-be silent movie star Mabel Normand. Sills, who first played the role in the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical in a 2000 production, brings depth and gravitas to the number "Movies Were Movies," while Socha beguiles with her sweetly wide-eyed "Look What Happened to Mabel." Given the most production value of the evening, complete with a black-and-white color scheme created by costumer Alejo Vietti and lighting designer Paul Miller, the Mack & Mabel segment was the only one that proved why that show demands a second look. Why wasn't that the season opener instead?
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