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Call Me Madam: A Mixed Bag Opens New Encores! Season

Carmen Cusack stars in Irving Berlin's political satire from 1950.

Carmen Cusack in the Encores! production of Call Me Madam.
(© Stephanie Berger)

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of New York City Center, Encores! has opened its 2019 season with the show that cemented its reputation more than two decades ago: the 1950 Irving Berlin, Howard Lindsay, and Russel Crouse musical Call Me Madam. As it proved back in the 1990s, Call Me Madam is the perfect kind of Encores! show, one that's rarely produced but has a wealth of great songs and roles, and provides a star vehicle for a perfectly cast actor.

Loosely inspired by the appointment of DC society host Perle Mesta as ambassador of Luxembourg, Call Me Madam was created as a vehicle for Ethel Merman, who, despite wanting to star in a drama, couldn't say no to Berlin, the composer who gave her one of her biggest hits in Annie Get Your Gun. Madam, as politically up-to-date as it got in 1950, proved successful too, running 644 performances and earning Tonys for its star and songwriter. Tyne Daly played the role when Encores! first presented the show in 1995.

In Call Me Madam, President Truman appoints DC doyen Sally Adams (Carmen Cusack) as ambassador to the fictional European country Lichtenburg. Once she arrives in the cash-strapped country, she works her down-home charm across all the local gentry, including Prime Minister Cosmo Constantine (Ben Davis), who is instantly taken with her American brashness. Romance blossoms, but classic mid-20th-century musical-theater complications ensue.

As a musical, Call Me Madam is supposed to sparkle with nutty eccentricity. Don't forget, the principal character is someone so apolitical she throws a square dance at one of her Washington soirees to make the Democrats and Republicans dance together, as if that would work. And it's set in a fictional country where the primary export is cheese and the inhabitants wear lederhosen.

But there's something off about Casey Hushion's strangely presentational new production — as though she forgot to dial the central performances up to the highest possible tempo. Despite some hoarseness in her upper register, Cusack has a voice of velvet and looks amazing in Jen Caprio's fashionable costumes. However, the role of Sally Adams calls for a bulldozer whose coarseness steamrolls everyone, and Cusack is instead genteel and a little too warm. Davis suffers a similar fate, with a lovely voice but acting that lacks pizzazz.

As the younger lovers, Jason Gotay (who plays Sally's politically minded young associate) and Lauren Worsham (as the sheltered Lichtenburgian princess) are far more interesting. Worsham, in fact, seems to be the only one delivering the energy and mania that Call Me Madam needs to really work, though Adam Heller, Brad Oscar, and Stanley Wayne Mathis come a close second, third, and fourth as a trio of politicians who steal the show with a second-act musical debate about the 1952 election: "They Like Ike."

That song is one of the show's best numbers, and choreographer Denis Jones consistently impresses with his large group dances interspersed throughout. The true-blue highlight, though, is Cusack and Gotay's late-second-act "You're Just in Love", one of Berlin's famous counterpoints, a number that not only brings the house down but stops the show cold. Too bad that energy is missing in what comes before.

Jason Gotay and Lauren Worsham in Call Me Madam.
(© Stephanie Berger)

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