Village Voice May 16, 2012 : Page 22

I Love a Millionaire Gentlemen Prefer Blondes By Joseph Fields, Anita Loos, Leo Robin, and Jule Styne Encores! at City Center (Closed) Theater Lorelei Lee’s diamonds now adorn new-style material girl Megan Hilty BY MICHAEL FEINGOLD art | VoicE choicEs | used to startle people by includ-ing Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes among the great American novels, along with The Scarlet Let-ter , Moby Dick , and The Great Gatsby (that last published the same year as Loos’s work, 1925). All three deal with the false innocence, feigned or self-willed, that seems to nest at the core of the American myth—Dimmesdale’s piety, Ahab’s san-ity, Gatsby’s gentlemanliness—and so make it a prime target for comic debunk-ing. Dimmesdale, Ahab, and Gatsby are destroyed; Lorelei Lee, Loos’s dumb-like-a-fox heroine, hilariously triumphs. And back when America could laugh at itself, Lorelei’s triumph became part of the myth. Judges as astute as Edith Wharton and H.L. Mencken shared my high evalu-ation, as did the American public, which made Loos’s epic of faux-naivete a runaway bestseller, keeping it in print for the next half-century. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes immediately spawned a 1926 stage ver-sion, by Loos and her director husband, John Emerson. A silent-film version, now lost, followed in 1928, also scripted by Loos, along with, inevitably, a follow-up novel, . . . But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes . After a hiatus during the 1930s and early ’40s, while Americans became preoc-cupied with peripheral matters like the Depression and World War II, the 1920s came back into fashion, bringing along Gentlemen Prefer Blondes , this time as a spiffy 1949 Broadway musical, just revived for a brief run by City Center’s Encores!, with a book co-written by Loos and Joseph Fields, and catchy tunes by Jule Styne to smart, pungent lyrics by Leo Robin. The musical, too, spawned a movie version, as a result of which most Americans know Lorelei Lee only as Marilyn Monroe. The targets of Loos’s good-natured satire, having dwindled steadily with each suc-cessive version, have almost vanished. Not that the 1949 musical offered much satiric bite, never a Broadway specialty. Tracing Lorelei’s antics as she hunts mil-lionaires for herself and her carefree sidekick, Dorothy (despite the latter’s disinterest), the Fields-Loos script sticks to broad burlesquing of familiar types. As trimmed down for Encores!, it often seemed to consist mainly of mere setups for songs, some of them dragged in on the most preposterously thin excuses. Luckily, John Rando’s production caught the jovial, burlesque tone with easy amiabil-22 ity, and a batch of skilled comic hands—Deb-TheaTer | | Music | FilM | Bars | Eats | Books | DancE | I struck up the overture. Don Walker’s original orchestrations are notably brass-heavy, but the Encores! brass played with a tenderness rare in today’s Broadway pits. The quality held good all evening, bring-ing out the best in Trude Rittman’s inven-tive dance arrangements and supporting the exceptionally strong choral singing in Hugh Martin’s stunningly extravagant, Kay Thompson–influenced vocal arrange-ments. One of the show’s exceptionally good ideas was to restore the traditional division of the chorus into singers and dancers. (Both do both, but each has to do less of the other’s specialty.) Nearly all the solo singing was first-rate, too, especially Aaron Lazar’s, his ultra-romantic Henry Spofford serenading Rachel York’s Dorothy with heart-melting cantabile phrases. villagevoice.com John Rando’s production caught the jovial, burlesque tone with easy amiability. York carried her own numbers through with a great display of personal vivacity; Clarke Thorell and Stephen R. Buntrock, as Lorelei’s rival suitors, balanced humor and vocal power stylishly. Fabulously leggy Megan Sikora, abetted by a bril-liant tap team, Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes, nearly blew the roof off the house with the best of choreographer Randy Skinner’s rousing dance numbers. And there was Megan Hilty as Lorelei, now much-acclaimed. I’m of two minds: After a fake-funny Kristin Chenoweth start that put me off, Hilty found her own way into the role and displayed an appealing comic personality. Her way, though, is the hard-edged, assertive one common in to-day’s female comedy playing. But Lorelei, a dainty doll with a concealed tiger inside, is not one of today’s females. Hilty brought the work off forcefully; I’d love to see her try it with that force concealed. In American icons, the mask of innocence is everything. mfeingold@villagevoice.com Joan Marcus Anita Loos receives an Encores!: Hilty and Jones orah Rush, Sandra Shipley, Steven Boyer, Brennan Brown, and Simon Jones—gave fresh zest to their conventional tasks. This cleared the way, as the comedy in old-style The House of Mirth By Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch Metropolitan Playhouse 220 East 4th Street 212-995-5302, metropolitanplayhouse.org musical comedy must, for the music to take over. And the music was generally in very good hands indeed, as was evident the min-ute conductor Rob Berman’s orchestra result of their partnership left neither happy. Audiences found the overdose of chloral hy-drate that concludes the life of Mrs. Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart, a glum finish for an evening out, and the show closed in a few weeks. The eminent novelist William Dean Howells, Mrs. Wharton’s opening-night guest, cracked bit-terly that what Americans always wanted was “a tragedy with a happy ending.” The Wharton-Fitch script, published in 1981 in an edition by theater scholar Glenn Loney, had never been fully retested until the Metropolitan Playhouse’s current revival (through May 20). The results are, in their way, remarkable. Though much of the novel’s depth is gone, along with its wonderfully nuanced sense of the plushy, upper-crust reality in which the bulk of the action occurs, the characters and their interlocking dilemmas come off sharp and clear. The dialogue spits arrows, which reveal, as they whizz toward their targets, the queasy hidden motives that aimed them. Born to the privileged class but penniless, Mrs. Wharton’s Business School A noted novel’s stage adaptation gets a revival E ven 107 years ago, entertainment produc-ers’ eyes lit up at the thought of getting their hands on a bestselling novel, and the Broadway eminence Charles Frohman must have thought he’d hit the jackpot when he ac-quired the rights to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), as dramatized by Mrs. Wharton herself, in collaboration with the era’s go-to guy for commercial play construction, Clyde Fitch. Fraught with frustration on both sides, much of it over the novel’s bleak ending, the Lily (the demurely pretty Amanda Jones), gifted with both a good brain and a true heart, louses up all her best chances through her inability to decide between snagging a rich spouse and settling for genteel poverty. The hypocrisy of the social game the former requires revolts her, as does the humiliation of settling for less. Alienating those around her, unfit for the actual work then available to women, she drifts quickly downward, to despair and that fatal overdose. Alex Roe’s production, dry, taut, and matter-of-fact, matches the script’s astonishingly stark preoccupation with the monetary facts of Gilded Age life: Marital and extramarital affairs alike are conducted on a strictly-business basis, with the genders held to a strict double standard that parallels the double-column bookkeeping. Though not always grasping how funny Fitch and Mrs. Wharton intended this hardheaded view of social cost accounting to be, Roe’s proficient, well-spoken cast lays out its sum-mation of wealthy America’s giant moral deficit with immaculate lucidity. MICHAEL FEINGOLD M ay 16–M ay 22 , 2012 Village Voice

Theater

Michael Feingold

I Love a Millionaire <br /> <br /> Lorelei Lee’s diamonds now adorn new-style material girl Megan Hilty<br /> <br /> Gentlemen Prefer Blondes<br /> <br /> I used to startle people by including Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes among the great American novels, along with The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, and The Great Gatsby (that last published the same year as Loos’s work, 1925). All three deal with the false innocence, feigned or self-willed, that seems to nest at the core of the American myth—Dimmesdale’s piety, Ahab’s sanity, Gatsby’s gentlemanliness—and so make it a prime target for comic debunking. Dimmesdale, Ahab, and Gatsby are destroyed; Lorelei Lee, Loos’s dumb-like a- fox heroine, hilariously triumphs.<br /> <br /> And back when America could laugh at itself, Lorelei’s triumph became part of the myth. Judges as astute as Edith Wharton and H.L. Mencken shared my high evaluation, as did the American public, which made Loos’s epic of faux-naivete a runaway bestseller, keeping it in print for the next half-century. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes immediately spawned a 1926 stage version, by Loos and her director husband, John Emerson. A silent-film version, now lost, followed in 1928, also scripted by Loos, along with, inevitably, a follow-up novel,... But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes.<br /> <br /> After a hiatus during the 1930s and early ’40s, while Americans became preoccupied with peripheral matters like the Depression and World War II, the 1920s came back into fashion, bringing along Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, this time as a spiffy 1949 Broadway musical, just revived for a brief run by City Center’s Encores!, with a book co-written by Loos and Joseph Fields, and catchy tunes by Jule Styne to smart, pungent lyrics by Leo Robin. The musical, too, spawned a movie version, as a result of which most Americans know Lorelei Lee only as Marilyn Monroe. The targets of Loos’s good-natured satire, having dwindled steadily with each successive version, have almost vanished.<br /> <br /> Not that the 1949 musical offered much satiric bite, never a Broadway specialty. Tracing Lorelei’s antics as she hunts millionaires for herself and her carefree sidekick, Dorothy (despite the latter’s disinterest), the Fields-Loos script sticks to broad burlesquing of familiar types. As trimmed down for Encores!, it often seemed to consist mainly of mere setups for songs, some of them dragged in on the most preposterously thin excuses.<br /> <br /> Luckily, John Rando’s production caught the jovial, burlesque tone with easy amiability, and a batch of skilled comic hands—Deborah Rush, Sandra Shipley, Steven Boyer, Brennan Brown, and Simon Jones—gave fresh zest to their conventional tasks. This cleared the way, as the comedy in old-style musical comedy must, for the music to take over. And the music was generally in very good hands indeed, as was evident the minute conductor Rob Berman’s orchestra struck up the overture. Don Walker’s original orchestrations are notably brass heavy, but the Encores! Brass played with a tenderness rare in today’s Broadway pits.<br /> <br /> The quality held good all evening, bringing out the best in Trude Rittman’s inventive dance arrangements and supporting the exceptionally strong choral singing in Hugh Martin’s stunningly extravagant, Kay Thompson–influenced vocal arrangements. One of the show’s exceptionally good ideas was to restore the traditional division of the chorus into singers and dancers. (Both do both, but each has to do less of the other’s specialty.) Nearly all the solo singing was first-rate, too, especially Aaron Lazar’s, his ultra-romantic Henry Spofford serenading Rachel York’s Dorothy with heart-melting cantabile phrases.<br /> <br /> York carried her own numbers through with a great display of personal vivacity; Clarke Thorell and Stephen R. Buntrock, as Lorelei’s rival suitors, balanced humor and vocal power stylishly. Fabulously leggy Megan Sikora, abetted by a brilliant tap team, Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes, nearly blew the roof off the house with the best of choreographer Randy Skinner’s rousing dance numbers.<br /> <br /> And there was Megan Hilty as Lorelei, now much-acclaimed. I’m of two minds: After a fake-funny Kristin Chenoweth start that put me off, Hilty found her own way into the role and displayed an appealing comic personality. Her way, though, is the hard-edged, assertive one common in today’s female comedy playing. But Lorelei, a dainty doll with a concealed tiger inside, is not one of today’s females. Hilty brought the work off forcefully; I’d love to see her try it with that force concealed. In American icons, the mask of innocence is everything.<br /> <br /> The House of Mirth<br /> <br /> By Edith Wharton and Clyde Fitch<br /> <br /> Mrs. Wharton’s Business School <br /> <br /> A noted novel’s stage adaptation gets a revival <br /> <br /> Even 107 years ago, entertainment producers’ eyes lit up at the thought of getting their hands on a bestselling novel, and the Broadway eminence Charles Frohman must have thought he’d hit the jackpot when he acquired the rights to Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905), as dramatized by Mrs. Wharton herself, in collaboration with the era’s go-to guy for commercial play construction, Clyde Fitch.<br /> <br /> Fraught with frustration on both sides, much of it over the novel’s bleak ending, the result of their partnership left neither happy. Audiences found the overdose of chloral hydrate that concludes the life of Mrs. Wharton’s heroine, Lily Bart, a glum finish for an evening out, and the show closed in a few weeks. The eminent novelist William Dean Howells, Mrs. Wharton’s opening-night guest, cracked bitterly that what Americans always wanted was “a tragedy with a happy ending.” <br /> <br /> The Wharton-Fitch script, published in 1981 in an edition by theater scholar Glenn Loney, had never been fully retested until the Metropolitan Playhouse’s current revival (through May 20). The results are, in their way, remarkable. Though much of the novel’s depth is gone, along with its wonderfully nuanced sense of the plushy, upper-crust reality in which the bulk of the action occurs, the characters and their interlocking dilemmas come off sharp and clear. The dialogue spits arrows, which reveal, as they whizz toward their targets, the queasy hidden motives that aimed them.<br /> <br /> Born to the privileged class but penniless, Lily (the demurely pretty Amanda Jones), gifted with both a good brain and a true heart, louses up all her best chances through her inability to decide between snagging a rich spouse and settling for genteel poverty. The hypocrisy of the social game the former requires revolts her, as does the humiliation of settling for less. Alienating those around her, unfit for the actual work then available to women, she drifts quickly downward, to despair and that fatal overdose.<br /> <br /> Alex Roe’s production, dry, taut, and matter of- fact, matches the script’s astonishingly stark preoccupation with the monetary facts of Gilded Age life: Marital and extramarital affairs alike are conducted on a strictly-business basis, with the genders held to a strict double standard that parallels the double-column bookkeeping. Though not always grasping how funny Fitch and Mrs. Wharton intended this hardheaded view of social cost accounting to be, Roe’s proficient, well-spoken cast lays out its summation of wealthy America’s giant moral deficit with immaculate lucidity. MICHAEL FEINGOLD

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