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The Boy Friend

Julie Andrews directs the musical that made her a star, with decidedly middling results. logo
Sean Palmer and Jessica Grové in The Boy Friend
(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
Would it be too curmudgeonly to question whether the world really needs a revival of Sandy Wilson's The Boy Friend right now? Everything about it is derivative, as perhaps befits a 1954 take on the high-spirited, substance-free musicals of the 1920s. Fluff is the name of the game here and, ordinarily, that mandate might suffice. This production, however, seems desperately driven to charm -- an agenda that's bound to backfire.

Does this sound unduly harsh? You'll soon have a chance to judge for yourself. After its Goodspeed Opera House run, the show -- directed by Julie Andrews, who starred in the Broadway original -- will be touring the nation through March. The rationale behind this broad exposure is easy to explain. Even without a marquee name, The Boy Friend is a proven crowd-pleaser designed not to challenge one's faculties. The downside is that, with its insipid tunes and near-nonexistent plot, the show often bores.

Here's the gist of the story, such as it is: Polly Browne (Jessica Grové), has led so sheltered a life that she's compelled to invent a boyfriend to impress her classmates at a finishing school on the Riviera. As luck would have it in this type of confection, Polly is instantly smitten with a delivery boy (Sean Palmer) who -- luckier still -- happens to be an undercover British peer. In a sideline romance geared to the older set, Polly's doting widower father Percival Browne (Paul Carlin) discovers that the school's headmistress, Madame Dubonnet (Nancy Hess), is none other than his long-lost paramour "Kiki."

Grové sings with the dulcet tones of a young Andrews and even captures the great star's diction; close your eyes and you'll wonder whom you're hearing. But no one else in the 18-person cast save Bethe Austin as Hortense, a stock comic oh-la-la maid, seems to have made any effort to come up with a convincing or consistent accent. Hess's every utterance grates; the actress seems to have arrived at her Parisian accent by way of Romania. While it's true that the British tend to pride themselves on their refusal to bow to French pronunciation, this apparent tone-deafness on Andrews' part puzzles and bespeaks a lack of attention to detail.

The cast is a mixed bag in every respect. Palmer is storybook handsome and warm-voiced if a bit inert. As Polly's school chum Maisie, Andrea Chamberlain exudes a sunny gal-pal joie de vivre, and Rick Faugno (who calls to mind a sharp, young Chip Zien) is compelling as her consort, Bobby. Drew Eshelman's skill is evident despite his unsympathetic role of the elderly satyr Lord Brockurst, while Darcy Pulliam as his wife lends a quiet dignity to a thankless, Margaret Dumont-type character. On the minus side, Kirsten Wyatt as the sassy Dulcie is over the top from Scene One, all too evidently vying for Liza-hood; and Hess practically sinks the show singlehandedly. (One can't help wondering what Andrews herself might have done with so juicy a part.)

What does work, gloriously, is John DeLuca's choreography, especially for "Won't You Charleston with Me?" and "The Riviera," led by Chamberlain and Faugno. The most sizzling number is Hortense's "Nicer in Nice," in which Austin gives her all from boop-a-doop squeaks to a bluesy belt, all the while out-dancing an energetic young corps. The ickiest number is "It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love," in which Lord Brockhurst comes on to Dulcie; we've been sensitized over the past half-century, so watching lusty old geezers putting the moves on innocent young things is no longer a guaranteed font of hilarity.

You know something's a little off when your attention repeatedly wanders to register the pleasures of the scenery and costumes, both designed by Broadway whiz Tony Walton (Andrews' ex-husband) and carried over from the Bay Street Theatre production of the show two summers ago. The cartoonish sets segue handily from school to beach to the café terrace site of a carnival dance, where a tangerine glow (what photographers call "the golden moment") gives way to a dramatic lantern-lit tableau in sinful black and red. The witty costumes are responsible for a good portion of the visual jokes; if only the acuity they evince permeated the show as a whole.

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