You can pay twice the money on Broadway and still not find a musical that will be as full of zany fun and talent as the Cy Coleman/A.E. Hotchner musical courtroom farce, Exactly Like You, now playing at the York Theatre Company's home at St. Peter's Church in the Citicorp building. Its cast of twelve is small by Broadway musical standards.
Artistic director and set designer James Morgan and director/choreographer Patricia Birch prove themselves the ultimate mothers of inventiveness in making the stage accommodate judge, jury, lawyers and clients, not to mention musicians. Ms. Birch has assembled a cast of remarkable versatility. That includes the musicians who are positioned so that they are part of the courtroom and can switch from musical accompanists to actors without missing a beat. What fun! The bassist (Frank Gravis) has a voice to match his instrument. By the time the judge (the many-hatted Doug Katsaros also serves as music director, orchestrator, keyboardist, and vocal and dance arranger) takes his place at what turns out to be the second keyboard (the first is played by Donya Lane, the court stenographer) it's clear that the staging adds enormously to the zaniness and is in fact one of the show's strongest suits.
The show itself is built around a trial in which a driven-to-the-edge son-in-law (Edward Staudenmayer) is brought up on charges of abusing his bossy and invasive mother-in-law (Susan Mansur). It is given a contemporary flavor through the conceit of a narrator in the guise of a TV commentator at a court-tv broadcast. The role is played with panache by Tony Hastings, with Act 2 introductory number "Good Day" a particular standout.
To complicate matters and to bring romance rather than order to the court there are three romantic sub-plots -- four if you count the alliance of the politically ambitious judge and the manipulative mother-in-law. To start with there's defendant Kevin Bursteter and his wife Eve (Kate Levering) who's caught between her love for him and the devil of filial devotion. The second tangled romance centers on the prosecuting attorney Arlene Murphy (Lauren Ward) and the defense attorney Martin Murphy (Michael McGrath). The devil that has pulled them apart is lawyerly ambition. Finally, we have two jurors, country music singer Winona Shook (Blair Ross) and buttoned-up Aaron Bates (Robert Bartley) whose antipathy for each is as inevitably bound to change as the jury's disposition to send the defendant to jail instead of on a second honeymoon.
The actors are so good -- both in their key roles and in their quick shifts to some of the terrifically choreographed production numbers -- that you're chuckling and enjoying yourself even though it's all built around Henny Youngman's threadbare old joke line "take my mother-in-law. . ." When the mother-in-law is not on trial as a stereotypical villain, the lawyers themselves make fun of themselves, with Lauren Ward and Michael McGrath again proving that sometimes talent can override the obvious. The pair get to sing some of the show's best ballads, and a standout solo-duet, "Ain't He Cute?" and "Ain't She Cute?" Edward Staudenmayer, whose comedic skills last contributed to the latest incarnation of the (Forbidden Broadway spoofs is also a fine balladeer as well as always-in-step ensemble player.
Susan Mansor is the only member of the cast who needed to be encouraged by the director to overcome the typecast part given her and take Mrs. Vanderhosen over the edge. The part calls for the no holds barred camp of actors like Mary Lou Rosato and Ruth Williamson. (The former was the scene-stealing meanie in the revival of Once Upon a Mattress several seasons ago; the latter almost saved The Green Heart and Queen Amarantha from an early death.).
Cy Coleman's score is catchy as is to be expected of this seasoned pro. The lyrics, a collaboration with A. E. Hotchner, are agreeably rhymed though Hotchner strikes me as a better biographer (most famously of Ernest Hemingway) and journalist than librettist/lyricist. The catchiest and most hummable number (and, alas, again demonstrating the show's reliance on the tried and true) is the Act One finale in which the whole ensemble does variations on "Don't Mess Around With Your Mother-In-Law."
The big stars of this production, besides the cast, are director-choreographer Birch who presides over this courtroom with a light but firm touch worthy of a supreme court nomination and set designer James Morgan -- with an able assist from Richard Schurkamp's witty costumes.
If Exactly Like You isn't exactly the best and most original musical ever, it is nevertheless. good old-fashioned fun.. Arriving as it does in a rather joyless musical season it delivers on all these counts. And so, if you're looking for two hours of enjoyable musical entertainment, get thee to St. Peter's Church. As of this writing the show is scheduled for a limited run only.
| EXACTLY LIKE YOU
By Cy Coleman and A.E. Hotchner
Directed and choreographed by Patricia Birch
Starring Lauren Ward and Michael McGrath; also featuring Robert Bartley, Frank Gravis, Tony Hastings, Doug Katsaros, Donna Kelly, Donya Lane, Kate Levering, Susan Mansur, Edward Staudenmayer and Blair Ross
Set design: James Morgan
Vocal and dance arrangements: Cy Coleman & Doug Katsaros
Orchestrations: Doug Katsaros
Costume design: Richard Schurkamp
Lighting design: Kirk Bookman
Sound design: Peter Hylenski
3/31/99-5/09/99; opening 4/14/99
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 4/15 performance