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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Poor Belle Poitrine. She began her fictional life as the star of a best-selling spoof on celebriographies titled Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of the Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis. Belle's creator happily played second banana to Belle of the mighty bosoms and mightier ambition to gain wealth, culture and social position. Then along came Neil Simon, the man asked to adapt Dennis' satire for a musicalized stage comedy. To make what was book funny stage funny he fixed things so that Belle became the second banana to her husbands and suitors who were played by a single co-star; specifically, the king of TV comedy, Sid Caesar.
Virginia Martin, who played young Belle (the journey to super stardom spans many years), won a Tony nomination for Best Supporting Actress. But it was Sid Caesar uncanny ability to master more accents than a master teacher at Berlitz (not to mention his own linguistic gobbledygook) who gave the show its r'aison d'être and memorability.
Now a man named Short has been given the tall order of filling Caesar's shoes. Happily, he doesn't short-change audiences in what he delivers. He's no great Caesar's ghost but very much his own man -- or rather men. Those who never saw Caesar live or in reruns will probably enjoy Short without reservations. Caesar's fans will recognize that what Short may lack in linguistic agility is offset by his physicality (he enters the stage doing somersaults), whimsical charm and better than pleasant singing voice. His most endearing incarnation is as the schlemiel-ish World War I soldier who turns Belle from a poor schlump of a girl into Mrs. Fred Poitrine, nee. Schlumpfert -- as his solo "Real Live Girl" is also one of the show's best numbers.
Since Short so ably overcomes the inevitable comparisons that accompany a revival associated with one performer, it would seem that Faith "wonderful Miss Adelaide" Prince could get the best of the musical's downsizing of her star status in the Dennis novel. Her role is in fact enlarged from the original in that she plays both the young and older Belle.
Unfortunately, while Mr. Short has comfortably stepped into seven pairs of old shoes (plus an extra pair as half of a hilarious duo of talent agents), the shoes of both Belles seem to pinch Ms. Prince. True, she's got a big Broadway voice and has brought along bits of Adelaide, but that only points to the fact that she often seems to be in a different play than the rest of the cast. Maybe Mr. Simon who in an interview mentioned "120 pages of things" rewritten specifically to "capitalize on Short's talents" should have spent more time with capitalizing on Ms. Prince's talents. Maybe it's those God-awful costumes by Ann Hould-Ward that could make anyone feel as if they've been trapped in fashion hell. There's one long dress with a ruffle that looks as if any movement would be at peril of tripping and falling. Maybe it's the the paper thin substance of the title role.
Considering the success of another revival of a comedy spoof, The Mystery of Irma Vep (see link), the reason the co-star underwhelm can be attributed to all of the above. In Irma, the conceit of the multiple role playing which, as in Little Me, drives everything else is evenly divided between its two equally important stars and not insubstantially abetted by some of the most spectacular costumes currently on any New York stage. (It's worth noting, that as a 1982 Little Me flopped when it when two actors played the seven men, regional revivals dividing the Irma Vep characters among a larger cast totally defeat playwright Charles Ludlam's intentions).
In his memoir, Rewrites (see link), Mr. Simon mentions that the second attraction to writing the book for Little Me (the first being tailoring it to Sid Caesar) was that it was a chance to work with Bob Fosse who was to choreograph and co-direct with Cy Feuer. That brings us to the director and choreographer of the current show, Rob Marshall.
Since Fosse was the only one associated with the original production to actually win a Tony, Mr. Marshall, clearly is also stepping into larger than life shoes. Not surprisingly the man who co-directed and choreographed the highly original revival of Cabaret (see link) does not settle for rubber-stamp Fosse routines. His dances are full of pep, more energetic than extraordinary, and most amusing when they tip their hat to other musicals. Most notable and recognizable is the sly bow to Fosse during Belle's Chicago-like trial for accidentally shooting the curmudgeonly banker Pinchley. As for Mr. Marshall's direction generally, if he could have kept Mr. Short on stage at all times, things would move along less fitfully and with nary a yawn.
Michael Park's seductive "I've Got Your Number" solo while great fun also underscores the miscasting of Ms. Prince. The rest of the large supporting cast does excellent work, often in multiple roles. Ruth Williamson aptly cast Mama Eggleston and Momma Schlumpfert makes you wish someone would write a musical in which she had a bigger role. Ditto for Christine Pedi whose comedic talents lent great verve to several editions of Forbidden Broadway (see link).
The staging generally owes much to the always inventive David Gallo who sends a dizzying array of sets spinning onto the stage side of a revolving turntable. Michael Posner's lighting, like Ann Hould-Ward's costumes leans heavily towards unappealing shades of pink and purple.
Since there is no pit for an orchestra in this theater, the band is nicely housed in a cut-out second tier of the basic set. Too bad that instead of recognizing that a small orchestra is an advantage in a small house, this band tries to sound big through excessive over miking which undercuts the audience's appreciation of the lyrics. Taking everything into consideration, if you're looking for a light, entertaining evening you could do a lot worse than this Little Me. It isn't in the category of a major musical revival-- because it never really was more than a minor musical to begin with. As the Roundabout lobby display and program notes point out it's in the tradition of vaudeville -- in this case with a joke oriented story line to tie the individual acts into a book revue.
Perhaps the best evaluation of the show's littleness comes from the playwright himself (again from Rewrites ) when he recounts overhearing two couples in the lobby. One couple loved it; the other walked out at intermission because they hated it. ""Both were right" says Simon, adding: "We were both farcical and theatrical at the same time. We told the audience that Noble and Belle really loved each other, but neither the writers nor actors nor directors 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 two and a quarter hours."
Neil Simon's memoir
The Mystery of Irma Vep