To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the very successful Encores! series threw us a party by offering its seven audiences (February 7–11) a potpourri of book scenes and musical numbers from eight musicals which had never been shown in their entirety on the Encores! stage at City Center. Jack Viertel and Rob Berman, the artistic and musical directors of the series, came up with the concept of “a musical within a musical within a musical.” Then with the help of casting director Jay Binder and his associates, they put together a company of fourteen leading players and an ensemble of seventeen top singers and dancers directed by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Denis Jones. If nothing else, it proves there is enormous talent in all departments in the ranks just below the legendary superstars who light up the skies each season.
Among them are Bebe Neuwirth, Douglas Sills, Nancy Opel, Judy Kuhn, Mark Kudisch, Carolee Carmello, and Bob Martin who have all created leading roles on Broadway. Here, Ms. Neuwirth ripped into Noel Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away and reminded us how intoxicating lyrics can be when they are mouthed by a dancer/singer who can act. Carolee Carmello took the title song from Wildcat, which had once served Lucille Ball in her Broadway debut, and made it her own. Bob Martin wrote all his own material as “the man in the chair” who guided us hilariously through the entire performance. Douglas Sills was so impressive as Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel, he made us wonder once again why that Jerry Herman musical did not attract large audiences when it opened in 1974.
In addition, Vanessa Williams has flourished in television and in the recording world where she’s picked up eleven Grammy nominations, four others for Emmys, and one for a Tony Award. Here, she stepped into original star Lena Horne’s shoes and brought her own talents to “Ain’t It the Truth” and “Push De Button,” two swell numbers from Jamaica. Reed Birney has joined the ranks of top character stars in such plays as The Humans, Casa Valentina, Bug, and many more. But Hey, Look Me Over! marks his very welcome debut in musical theater, to which he brought real star quality in three numbers from the near-miss musical All American.
One of the weaker scores was from the atypical Frank Loesser musical Greenwillow, but Clifton Duncan managed to raise the roof with the best piece in it, “Never Will I Marry.” In this Encores! production, Clyde Alves played small roles from Milk and Honey and Sail Away before stopping the show cold with his performance in a scene from the musical George M!, which ended the evening with a very exciting rendition of “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
The overall choreography by Denis Jones enhanced every number it laid its hands (and feet) on, and by the time the show was over, a huge majority of the audience remained for an animated 45-minute post-performance dialogue featuring members of the cast and the artistic team. All in all, this creative compilation got the new season off to a rousing start for Encores! In March and again in May, Encores! returns to the accepted formula of mounting revivals, and we’re fortunate that Grand Hotel and Me And My Girl are the chosen two to remind us once again of the Golden Age, when even with second tier shows, musicals were musicals.
Hey, Look Me Over! played through February 11, 2018, at City Center, 131 West 55th St., New York, NY.