There’s just no tune
As a showtune
For Jerry Herman, the lyrics of this early composition, “Showtune,” represent a kind of mission statement. In song after song, in Broadway hits like Mame, La Cage aux Folles and Hello, Dolly!, Herman has made it his goal in life to send people out of a theatre humming his tunes. And while some may dismiss his style as antiquated or unsophisticated, there’s no denying that, most of the time, his relentlessly upbeat and melodic songs do the trick.
The revue Jerry’s Girls takes a bunch of Herman’s best songs and fits them into a revue format. It’s not always a smooth fit, but it’s a lovely way to spend a couple of hours, thanks to a solid production and a terrific cast.
Barbara McCulloh, Rebecca Robbins, and Adrienne S. Wells are the trio of performers doing justice to Herman’s songs. They do most of their songs together, singing in unison (on “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”) or Andrews Sisters-style harmony (on “Kiss Her Now,” from the 1969 show Dear World). But they each get a chance to shine on some of Herman’s more tender material: Robbins does an emotional solo on “If He Walked Into My Life,” Wells does the same on “I Don’t Want to Know,” and McCulloh scores on “Time Heals Everything.”
And other numbers offer cheery pleasures: McCulloh and Robbins sparring in the sure-fire comedy number “Bosom Buddies,” Wells putting a jazzy spin on the title number of La Cage, and Robbins using her sterling soprano to get laughs (from movie lovers of a certain age) with her Jeanette MacDonald impression on “Nelson.”
“Nelson” is part of a movie-themed medley that flows naturally through songs like “Movies Were Movies” and “Just Go to the Movies.” But as conceived by Herman, Larry Alford and Wayne Cilento, Jerry’s Girls doesn’t always give Herman’s material the support it needs. Most of Herman’s songs were written to fit the plots of his musicals, and they often don’t make sense out of context.
A prime example is my favorite Herman ballad, “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack and Mabel: changing the singer from a man to a woman doesn’t work, and adding the conceit of having the woman read the lyrics from a letter supposedly written by a man is just plain awkward. Even the jaunty title tune of Mame doesn’t work well on its own (the lyric “You make the cotton easy to pick” demands some explanation), and attempts to link songs together via props rather than dialogue are inelegant.
But if Jerry’s Girls is a bit of a bumpy ride, Herman’s lovely melodies and sunny attitude make the show easy to enjoy. And Director Ellie Mooney’s production gives it an appealing sheen. There’s an easygoing chemistry between the performers, and the pace never lags. Mooney’s only major misstep is to allow the audience to see many of the costume changes onstage, with the ladies singing in their lingerie for long stretches. It feels invasive and uncomfortable, and it’s out of step with the dignified, well-mannered bearing of Herman’s songs.
Those costumes are impressive, though. Each performer goes through multiple costume changes, with Mary Folino’s costumes and wigs encompassing everything from 19th century elegance for the Dolly numbers to short skirts and fishnet stockings for the La Cage numbers. Roman Tatarowicz’s scenic design, with alcoves for each performer that serve as onstage dressing rooms, are both functional and decorative, though the limited space doesn’t allow much room for Mooney’s choreography. Shon Causer’s lighting design (making shrewd use of the steps and proscenium as light sources) adds a touch of class. And Musical Director Dan Kazemi provides solid support with his energetic flourishes on piano and percussion.
The ladies of Jerry’s Girls are major talents who you’ll enjoy listening to for a couple hours. You probably know many of the show’s songs, and even the songs you don’t know may somehow feel familiar, which is part of Herman’s genius.
Jerry Herman’s songs make you feel good, and so will the Walnut’s Jerry’s Girls.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Jerry’s Girls plays through July 2, 2017 at Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3 — 825 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 574-3550, or (800)-982-2787, or purchase them online.