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James Naughton and Maya Days in No Strings
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
A good deal of the fun in the bouncy Encores! presentation of No Strings comes from Richard Rodgers's sumptuous, Tony Award-winning score. It was written in 1962, after Oscar Hammerstein had died and, therefore, at a point when Rodgers was bereft of two longtime lyricists -- Lorenz Hart being the other one. Yet the master Broadway composer's brilliance remained unimpaired; he designed wonderfully rippling tunes for the show, the punning title of which refers to both the interracial love story at the center of the musical and the string-less, on-stage band that Rodgers called for.

As much as the songs satisfy, there's also enjoyment for the veteran Rodgers fan in deciding whether, as each song unfurls, Rodgers's lyrics (also Tony-ed) are influenced more by Hart than Hammerstein or vice versa. By my count, the latter prevails among 14 numbers. The title song and "The Sweetest Sounds" -- perhaps the best known item in the score -- are marked by Hammerstein's signature simplicity, while the ballads "Nobody Told Me" and "Look No Further" echo his penchant for straightforward passion.

Hart, whose tongue so often pushed at his cheek that it must have worn a rut there, does peek through. He can be heard chuckling behind "The Man Who Has Everything" as well as in "Love Makes the World Go" and "Eager Beaver" (where Rodgers rhymes "grandeur" with "hand, you're" and "hasten" rhymes with "face in"). Hart might have been gratified and also amused to know he'd gotten under Rodgers's skin so permanently, since the composer is on record as having disliked Hart -- or, to be exact, as having disliked spending his time tracking down the tormented, wandering lyricist. According to original No Strings star Diahann Carroll, Rodgers once made such a ferociously homophobic comment to her about Hart that she completely lost respect for the man.

But respect is paid Rodgers by the creative team of the Encores! No Strings. Responsible for a large dollop of the production's good time is director-choreographer Ann Reinking. What a difference a week makes! Only days ago, Reinking was a target of critical abuse for her uninspired and vulgar work on The Look of Love. With her stylish approach to No Strings, however, she goes far towards righting recent wrongs. For sure, she brings on more Reinking look-alike showgirls with their dark hair pulled back and their "Here's my pelvis, my shoulders are on the way" attitude. And, at least twice, leading men James Naughton and Marc Kudisch are required to bury their faces gamely in a dancer's crotch.

Nonetheless, Reinking, with associate choreographer Debra McWaters, keeps most of the numbers high-stepping and sure-footed. Rodgers made a point of spreading his songs among the show's eight featured players, and Reinking finds numerous ways to keep their spirits bright and bubbling. Paying no attention to the Main Stem bromide about leading men not dancing, she gets Naughton, Kudisch, and Casey Biggs -- and, for that matter, everyone else -- moving suavely. Eliot Feld Ballet Tech mainstay Patricia Tuthill goes some distance beyond suave to simmering in her mid-show solo, and Reinking also has the leggy chorus insinuate themselves sexily around the stage. Under Ken Billington's melting lights, they seem to be so many exotic animals preening for each other. (Incidentally, the pelvis-forward ladies wear basic black frocks that costume consultant Candice Donnelly might have plucked from couture racks.)

Entertaining as this lively go at No Strings is, it's got one drawback as wide as Paris's Place de Mars, near which a lot of the action takes place. This terminal flaw, which will keep the snazzy production from moving anywhere else anytime soon, is Samuel Taylor's libretto. An urbane fellow whose biggest prior B'way credit was the lightweight but charming Sabrina Fair, Taylor here introduces writer's-blocked David Jordan (James Naughton) to Barbara Woodruff (Maya Days), Paris's top model. Although neither of them has much appeal for an audience -- he's a wastrel, while she's spoiled by life and has a wealthy French mentor named Louis (Len Cariou) -- they seem to see something in each other.

James Naughton, Emily Skinner,
and Marc Kudisch in No Strings
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Because the New York-born-and-raised Barbara is obligated to her benefactor, she doesn't instantly respond to the Maine-bred David's advances, but when she does, she discovers that his avowed intention to combine his love for her with a resumption of his Pulitzer Prize-caliber writing is so much hot air. She abruptly quits their Gallic hideaway and then...but what's the use? Their liaison is about as involving as standing on a Gristede's check-out line. (Perhaps the romance between a white man and a black woman was groundbreaking enough to hold the interest of at least some audience members when the show opened 41 years ago.)

If anything can be said in Taylor's favor other than his having provided Rodgers with opportunities for running up such a beguiling score, it's that he distracts attention from his tepid lovers with a number of diverting secondary figures, many of whom could be termed Ameri-trash. There's Vogue editor Mollie Plummer (Penny Fuller), American gigolo Mike Robinson (Marc Kudisch) and poor little rich girl Comfort O'Connell (Emily Skinner). Among the French folk on hand are high-fashion shutterbug Luc Delbert (Casey Biggs), and his assistant, Jeannette (Caitlin Carter). When these characters are milling about, David and Barbara don't seem quite as boring as they actually are.

It should be noted that David Thompson, who provided what book there is for the above mentioned Look of Love and who did same for the depressing Thou Shalt Not and the dreadful Steel Pier, is credited here with a "concert adaptation." This time, he can't really be blamed for not improving on the material, just as Kirsten Childs can't be held fully responsible for failing to polish the Encores! House of Flowers earlier this season. Still, one wonders what hold Thompson has over the people who continue to hire him despite his humble record.

Dreary as Taylor's David and Barbara are, James Naughton and Maya Days don't put themselves out in trying to breathe life into the deficient pair. Both sing well, Naughton in that plummy, Vaughn Monroe way of his and Days with the force of a power balladeer. (They are backed by Rob Fisher's as-usual proficient Encores! orchestra.) Days, with a fine-boned model's figure and a profile to match, is beautiful enough to grace magazine covers. But neither she nor Naughton, who seems to have his hands in his pockets even when they aren't, give the impression that they can't keep their eyes, minds, and bodies off one another. They behave more like strangers working their way through an unsuccessful blind date.

It's up to the rest of the cast to supply the "zing!" that the story calls for -- and they do. When, for instance, Naughton joins with Kudisch for the comedy turn "Be My Host," things pick up, as they do when Fuller and Skinner concur that love makes the world go square. Biggs and Carter have an especially cute time of it with the bilingual "La-La-La." And Len Cariou, thick Gallic accent and all, makes "The Man Who Has Everything" seem to have everything. If the show as a whole has less than everything, it still has enough to keep the madding musical comedy crowd happy, with no strings attached.

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