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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Belle Poitrine, nee Schlumpfert, began her fictional life in print, as the star of a best-selling spoof on celebriographies. The larger than life Belle's rise from the wrong side of the tracks to stardom was entitled Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of the Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine as told to Patrick Dennis. It was a runaway best seller and is, in fact, back in print and also available for those of you who prefer your books in digital format.
When Neil Simon was asked to adapt Dennis's fictive memoir as a musical satire for the stage, he immediately envisioned a libretto moving Belle to number two position and focusing on the men in her life, all to be played by one actor. The actor he had in mind for this tour-de-force was of course Sid Caesar the then king of television comedy, and Simon's erstwhile boss.
I never saw Caesar demonstrate his uncanny ability to master more accents than a master teacher at Berlitz, not to mention his own linguistic gobbledygook. I also missed the production that split the roles between two actors, but from all accounts it was quite missable.
I did see the 1999 Roundabout Theater revival which wisely went back to the original setup of one actor to do it all. Martin Short was no Caesar's Ghost but he put his own spin on the challenging assignment and he was very good indeed. While not as linguistically agile as Sid Caesar, he brought a compensatory physicality to his various personas. He was also more than up to the singing requirements. Besides bringing back the all-in-one casting for Belle's suitors, that production also had Faith Prince take on both the younger and older Belle which didn't work all that well.
But for all its pluses, Little Me never really became one of Broadway's big, iconic musicals. The problem was with the source material which was basically a series of joke filled vaudeville skits that resisted adaptation into an authentically believable, strong book musical. Neil Simon explained the show's persistent littleness in his memoir, Rewrites: "We were both farcical and theatrical at the same time. We told the audience Belle and Noble really loved each other, but neither we writers or the actors really believed it. We were asking audience to accept what we ourselves were making fun of. It was a good joke, but still a joke, and it's hard to maintain a joke for well over two hours.
The Encores! revival retains the sketchy plot but with enough big pluses to make one wish it could have run a little longer. The busy director John Rando has retained the concept of a single actor to play all the suitors. The versatile Christian Borle (the composer in the TV serial Smash and the originator of Captain Hook in Peter and the Starcatcher) is an excellent choice. If Jefferson Mayes ever needs to leave the delightful new musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder , the show could indeed go on with Borle to take over that musical's requirement for an actor capable of wizardly persona transformations.
In Little Me Borle smoothly slipped in and out of accents, wigs and moustaches as required for a portrait gallery of the men entering Belle's life, and in most cases dying accidentally soon after. The list includes; the following in order of appearance: the aptly named love of her life, Noble Eggelston. . . a miserly old banker. . .A Maurice Chevalieresque song and dance man. . . a dopey American doughboy. . . a teutonic, over the hill movie director. . . an impoverished prince. . .and the noble Noble's own son.
My favorite Borle incarnations were the crotchety old miser and the schlemiel-ish World War I doughboy who turns Belle from a poor schlump of a girl into Mrs. Fred Poitrine. Poitrine's sole "Real Live Girl" is also one of Borle's and the show's best numbers. What's more he's also got a fine baritone voice
The Encores! Little Me once more had two actresses to play Belle— an especially wise move given that the young Belle is played by the lovely Rachel York and the more mature Belle by Judy Kaye. Both York and Kaye sing beautifully and deliver the delightful title song with gusto and charm.
The ensemble also boasts some top of the line pros: Harriet Harris as Noble's snobbish mother; Tony Yazbeck, whose rendition of I've Got Your Number" is a choreographic highlight; Lewis J. Stadlen and Lee Wilkof teaming up as a pair of scrappy producers; and Robert Creighton to add multiple-role playing to the support side of this production. Except for Judy Kaye, who's responsible for delivering most of the story's text, none of the performers carried scripts.
Adding to the many pleasures of this revival is Joshua Bergasse's own athletic take on the original Fosse choreography which besides the already mentioned "I've Got Your Number" includes the delightful "Rich Kids'Rag." Not to be overlooked are the rather more extravagant than usual display of costumes. Life in New York hasn't been easy, but it can never be all dark as long as we have the invaluable Encores! to let us experience musical gems, even the less than 100% perfect ones.