Musicals Tonight! presents a concert staging of a hit from 1928.
"I want to take you back to 1928," says Mel Miller in his introduction to the Musicals Tonight! concert staging of Whoopee at Theatre Row's Lion Theatre. That was the year the show premiered at the New Amsterdam Theatre, just two blocks away from the Lion. Comedian Eddie Cantor starred as Henry Williams, using his roly-poly eyes to intimate the sexual innuendo in the title song, "Makin' Whoopee." Sexual mores and women's fashion were changing forever, with automobiles enabling Americans to be more mobile than ever before. A year prior to the stock market crash that would hurtle the country into the Great Depression, it seemed like the good times would never end. "It was the silly season," Miller observes.
With that in mind, director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills offers an appropriately silly staging. Binders in hand, this cast of 19 enacts William Anthony McGuire's lighthearted story with wide grins and exuberant glee. Even when it regularly dips into off-color humor that is decidedly no longer politically correct, the cast charges ahead, resulting in a straightforward yet buoyant presentation.
Whoopee takes place in the western outpost of Mission Rest, Arizona. Sally Morgan (Katie Emerson) is betrothed to Sheriff Bob (Morgan McCann), but her heart really belongs to Indian Brave Wanenis (Lee Hollis Bussie). She decides to run away with town hypochondriac Henry Williams (Blake Joseph) until she can reunite with her love, leading the townspeople to assume that Sally and Henry are eloping. (Sally confirms this in a note meant to throw them off the trail.) Sheriff Bob rounds up his posse of cowboys and they vow to "Go Get 'im" with a toe-tapping showstopper about lynching Henry. (Lyrics include: "Let him dangle 'til the coyotes chew 'im; / And let that be a damned good lesson to him.") The remainder of the show is a musical game of cowboys and Indians set in the Arizona desert.
As is the case with most musicals of the 1920s, the songs take precedence over the paper-thin plot. The score (music by Walter Donaldson; lyrics by Gus Kahn) is packed with winning and bouncy numbers, all of which would work splendidly outside the context of the show. Emerson and Bussie's duet, "Red, Red Rose" (which amusingly takes place inside a canoe), is a lost classic. As the boy-crazy daughter of millionaire Jerome T. Underwood (Tony Triano), Elise Castle really sells the rollicking number "You" while flanked by a gaggle of hunky cowboys. Blake Joseph wows us with all of Henry's songs, starting with the title number.
Joseph wisely avoids doing an Eddie Cantor impersonation, keeping his eyes (but not eyebrows) in check. Still, with an animated expression and ultra-crisp New York accent, there is something undeniably old-school about his comedic approach. He's like a young Nathan Lane, completely unafraid to chow down on the scenery.
There are several great performances. As Henry's randy nurse Mary, the hilarious Amie Bermowitz is like a soft-core dominatrix. "I have a positive passion for weak men," she purrs while salaciously rubbing his head. Triano gives the miserly Jerome a pinched voice to match his tight…wallet. Roger Rifkin does a fine job with Indian Chief Black Eagle's pidgin English, forsaking articles and prepositions with wild abandon. Emerson is bubbly and doe-eyed as Sally, with a disarmingly uncontrolled laugh.
You'll laugh along too, if only at how silly it all is. Whoopee is a fizzy romp through an imaginary (and slightly inappropriate) Old West that most contemporary producers wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. With a light step and an ample sense of fun, Musicals Tonight! gives us a sense of how an audience of yesteryear would have appreciated it.