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Face the Music

The City Center Encores! revival of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's 1932 tuner is the best musical in town! logo
Lee Wilkof and Judy Kaye in Face the Music
(© Joan Marcus)
Without any hemming and hawing, let's just face the facts: The best musical in town is the City Center Encores! revival of Irving Berlin and Moss Hart's Face the Music, which is directed with glowing freshness by John Rando, choreographed with lilt and snap by Randy Skinner, conducted smartly by Rob Fisher, and played with stylish vim by a superlative cast of Broadway stalwarts, led by Judy Kaye and Walter Bobbie.

Composer Jerome Kern once said, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music." Kern's assessment is proved correct again in Face the Music which could almost be categorized as a "new" musical. The show has been reconstructed and adapted, with flashes of genius, by librettist David Ives and archivist/arranger Bruce Pomahac. They've had to work from the not excessive remains of the 1932 show, which dates from a time when people were simply out to have fun and were cavalier about the very idea of musical-comedy posterity.

Face the Music, which is billed as a "musical comedy revue," does have a plot -- or what can laughingly be called a plot. I say laughingly, thanks to the numerous solid yuks abounding, many of them about show business. "Wait a minute," says impresario Hal Reisman (Walter Bobbie) at one hilarious moment. "Bankers don't know anything about show business. Just because it's called show business, bankers might think it's actually a business."

Reisman, a Ziegfeldesque impresario who's on his uppers, has been talked into trying a new extravaganza by young lovers Pat Mason (Jeffry Denman) and Kit Baker (Meredith Patterson). In turn, the trio convinces rolling-in-dough police official Martin van Buren Meshbesher (Lee Wilkof) and his dotty wife Myrtle (Kaye) to back the production.

The rest of the tale -- which satirizes the newly-poor upper classes, Broadway, the Depression, Mae West and anything else Berlin and Hart could get their mitts on --doesn't require much explanation. It's only worth knowing that an opening-night complication ensues, which eventually sends most of the principals on the lam, and the pair introduce a plot point that precedes Mel Brooks' The Producers by more than 30 years. Still, nothing so severe occurs that it stands in the way of a happy ending after Hart and Berlin decide they've provided enough entertainment for one evening.

Face the Music really exists to operate by the unspoken show-biz dictate of the period: The Three-Minute Rule. The idea is to go no longer than three minutes without segueing into a song. Some might say -- were they being unfeelingly harsh -- that this is one of Berlin's lesser scores, because the standards introduced in it are limited to "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee," and "Soft Lights and Sweet Music." But to say that would be to overlook sophisticated ballads like "Manhattan Madness" and comedy numbers, like "Torch Song," which kids ditties such as Fanny Brice's "My Man."

What also makes the show such a delight is that it's stolen by so many Great White Way thieves. Kaye, in the role originated by daffy Mary Boland, rouses spirits with the first act closer, "If You Believe." Bobbie lines across Reisman's mockery with gruff bombast, and aided by Mike Masters and J. D. Webster, turns charmer on "How Can I Change My Luck?" Wilkof is adorable, and Denman and Patterson repeatedly conjure Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In supporting roles, Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull bring to mind Buddy and Vilma Ebsen; Felicia Finley, ever a treasure, turns "Torch Song" into a discovery; and Chris Hoch spoofs the self-absorbed stage baritone with aplomb.

So if you can still nab a ticket, make sure to face Face the Music this weekend. You'll instantly become utterly entranced.

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