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Bloomer Girl

Kathleen Chalfant and Kate Jennings Grant in Bloomer Girl
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the right setting, antiques can look meaningful, persuasive and even, in some odd way, freshly-minted. After all, genuine antiques at the time of their production represented quality, and part of the definition of "quality" has to be durability. This is certainly true of Bloomer Girl, the 1944 musical for which E. Y. Harburg wrote the lyrics, Harold Arlen the music, and Sig Herzig and Fred Saidy the libretto. In its Encores! revival--if "revival" is the most accurate word for these book-in-hand-but-rarely-consulted staged readings--Bloomer Girl looks decidedly alive and cogent. It has the glow of wit most of the way through. Well, at least through its rollicking first act.

Musicals are often thought to be collaborations in which there is one particular guiding force, and Harburg likely provided the muscle on this one. A liberal who not too long after this show was produced (as well as his Finian's Rainbow) somehow accumulated the longest entry in Red Channels, the black bible of the witch-hunt crowd, Harburg saw musicals as decorated soap boxes. And leap upon them he did, flamboyantly gesturing whenever he could with heated words and ideas.

In Bloomer Girl, he focused on a figure of pre-Civil War America who by the 1940s might have seemed dated and quaint: Dolly Bloomer. In that crusader's campaign to get women out of hoopskirts and into more freeing outfits--Coco Chanel did something similar in the 1920s--Harburg saw a metaphor for ending repression, not only of women but also of African-Americans. And he saw all of this during the tense years of the Second World War. In his intention to get as many messages about these inflammatory subjects as possible across the footlights in comedy and song, he encouraged his pals Saidy and Herzig to run up an encompassing storyline, as if they, too, were stitching together a liberating rack of bloomers.

Evelina Applegate, whose mother is Dolly Bloomer's sister, is sympathetic to her aunt's cause but isn't encouraged in her fervor by her father, Horatio. He just happens to be the South's leading hoopskirt manufacturer, and he wants Evelina to marry one of his regional sales directors, just as his other five daughters have. Jefferson Lightfoot Calhoun is the guy of choice and, after a meet-cute incident with Evelina (he takes her for a maid), he wins her heart and mind. But he loses them when Pompey, his runaway slave, becomes a pawn in the fast-moving action.

The affections of the two lovers seesaw as Jeff and Evilina wrangle with changing attitudes. According to the prevailing musical comedy formula of the time, complications ensue that are ultimately straightened out. These are almost too numerous and too inconsequential to mention; but, among them, Jeff Calhoun has a brother who's disinclined to be flexible about Pompey's future, and Dolly has an in with the governor who eventually takes a hand in all the flummery. Then there's the sort of secondary plot common to tuners of the period, in which the Applegates' real maid, Daisy, and her working-class boyfriend try to come to some happy understanding.

The truth is that, in their zeal to stuff as many political admonitions as possible into their narrative and simultaneously get all the characters into trouble with each other and out of it, Harburg, Saidy, and Herzig took on more than they could satisfactorily handle. By the time the second act of Bloomer GIrl gets rolling, complete with a Civil War ballet, loose ends are practically tumbling over the footlights. When it's time to end the show, they do whatever they can to tie-up those loose ends and smile as the curtain falls.

For this reason, a Broadway revival of Bloomer Girl would be unwise. But, as it stands, the show seems as successfully realized at City Center as might be wished for. It can certainly be accounted a step-up for new series head Jack Viertel after the Encores! series' clumsy poke at A Connecticut Yankee last month.

The real heroes of the evening are Harburg and Arlen. For Bloomer Girl, which opened a year after Oklahoma! and borrowed soubrette Celeste Holm and choreographer Agnes de Mille from it, they wrote a sumptuous score. Although at the time people didn't gather around the piano to sing the hits from Bloomer Girl as they were gathering to chant the Oklahoma! favorites, they might well have done just that. Judged by the standards of our own time, when Broadway scores are often serviceable at best, the Bloomer Girl songs register off the high end of the meter. The ballad "Right as the Rain" has had the longest life, but "Evelina," with which Jeff woos the object of his affection, is just as tuneful. Indeed, the Arlen tunes--he was not as outwardly political as Harburg, but had his own passions--sound effortless yet consistently contain melancholy strains.

Harburg makes his points throughout, sometimes ardently, sometimes whimsically. He rhymes "hell of it" with "vel-e-vet," for only one of his sillinesses. He nods at World War II in his opening song, "When the Boys Come Home." He champions women in "Good Enough for Grandma" and argues well for civil rights in "I Got a Song" and "The Eagle and Me." (The latter includes what Stephen Sondheim has said is one of his favorite lyrics: "Ever since that day when the world was an onion.") Put briefly, this is a score with no duds; and it's played with sustained beauty and understanding by the Coffee Club Orchestra, conducted as usual by Rob Fisher.

In addition to Harburg and Arlen, however, the evening can boast at least two handfuls of other heroes. First among these equals is director Brad Rouse; he has engineered a quick-moving show in which all of the one-liners land squarely and the numbers click like knitting needles. Costume designer Toni-Leslie James has surely helped with the look of the show, since presumably she's the one who put half the women in graceful hoop skirts and the other half of the women (and, eventually some of the men) in graceful bloomers. All of these elements, incidentally, are rendered in black, white, and shades of grey.

Everett Bradley, Todd Hunter,
and Jubilant Sykes in Bloomer Girl
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The actors Rouse has put through their paces include series vet Philip Bosco as the bombastic yet malleable Horatio Applegate, Anita Gillette as the dithering Serena, and Kathleen Chalfant as Dolly. All three are fine, although Chalfant, who's been handed the play's most didactic lines, is perhaps more stentorian than is necessary. She's game, though, when it comes time to kick up her heels. (Coincidentally, this is the weekend when she won't be seen recreating her Wit role on HBO.)

Of the younger players, the find may well be Michael Park, who can be seen regularly on As the World Turns but who has also appeared on Broadway in Smokey Joe's Cafe and Little Me. When he falls to one knee and blurts out "Evelina," this darkly handsome actor gives notice that he's here for the long haul. "The Eagle and Me" is sung with warmth and drive by Jubilant Sykes; if ever a name matched the delivery of a song, this is it. Tall, striking, no-nonsense Kate Jennings Grant as Evelina puts more force than is absolutely necessary into her lines, but there is indisputable chemistry between her and Park. In smaller roles, Donna Lynne Champlin as the frustrated, eager maid, Daisy, makes herself known at one het-up moment when she gets to declare that "my dialectics are clear." The always frisky and accommodating Eddie Korbich steps out of the ensemble as a philandering husband.

It has fallen to Rob Ashford to do the work Agnes de Mille did in 1944, when supposedly she had run-ins with Harburg and crew over that long, somber Civil War ballet. Although the piece is danced with force by Karine Plantadit-Bageout and a handful of women waiting for the boys to come home, it doesn't look as if it owes much to de Mille. Yet it has many moving moments. Perhaps too moving: Running as long as it does, it adds to the list of flaws that make the second act cumbersome. So, in a sense, de Mille's ballet battle with the original team continues with no victor yet declared.

All in all, count Bloomer Girl as a welcome early-spring bloomer.

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