As Thousands Cheer was the hit musical event of the 1933 season, a revue with an innovative newspaper format that combined Irving Berlin songs with satirical sketches by Moss Hart about the celebrities who romped through the daily headlines. The New York Herald Tribune critic's rave review said the show's appeal came from the blending of Berlin's "mellifluous" melodies and Hart's "acid, cruel sense of humor."
Now the Drama Dept., an Off-Broadway theater company with an impressive track record of reviving overlooked shows of the past, has brought back the 65-year-old revue in a scaled-down production at the Greenwich House Theater. Although the revival isn't exactly a revelation of razor-sharp satire "ripped from the headlines," as they used to say, it is an engaging evening of singing and joking that's a lot gentler than anything you may have seen on Saturday Night Live in its better days.
Either time has softened the satire or, more likely, Hart's sense of humor was more affectionate than acidic. The gibes at such figures of the thirties as the socialite Barbara Hutton, Mahatma Gandhi, evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson, John D. Rockefeller and the Hollywood stars Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are all fairly tame.
The agreeable tone is maintained in Christopher Ashley's fluid staging, against a backdrop of projections showing newspaper front pages and scenes from the period. The pleasant musical staging is by Kathleen Marshall, although there's much less dancing than there must have been in the original.
The revival, which runs about an hour and a quarter, without an intermission, draws a lot of its appeal from the skill and versatility of its six performers, who move adroitly from spiritual leaders to socialites and from touching ballads to torch songs. The 1933 stars, Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, Helen Broderick and the great Ethel Waters, evidently had a lot more support on and off the stage.
In a rare departure from the overall lightness of As Thousands Cheer, Hart had a headline proclaim, "Unknown Negro Lynched by Frenzied Mob," followed by Waters' singing of "Supper Time." The song, in which the victim's widow prepares for a lonely meal without her husband, is now extremely well sung by Paula Newsome, although some of the poignancy is missing. Newsome also does a sultry, piano-crawling version of another song introduced by Waters, "Harlem on My Mind," playing a nostalgic Josephine Baker, looking homeward at the height of her fame in Paris.
Mary Beth Peil, who was once a dignified Anna in a revival of The King and I, gives Berlin's weather report song, "Heat Wave,'' a lot of verve and a sense of mischievous fun. (She also gets to display a touch of her operatic background in a sketch poking fun at radio broadcasts of opera; a blithe commercial for mustard sauce is the counterpoint for her portrayal of Lucia.) However, one of Berlin's best-known songs for the 1933 show, "Easter Parade," has been omitted for contractual reasons (Tommy Tune is reportedly planning to use it for a forthcoming musical of that title). Its replacement, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" (from the 1932 "Face the Music") fits in nicely, giving the show a glimpse of Depression Era cheerfulness.
The funniest of the sketches is one depicting Gandhi (played by B. D. Wong) in the midst of a hunger strike when he's joined by MacPherson (Peil), who asks, "Say, can you do anything but starve?" and then proposes that they team up to become a box-office sensation. The humor still resonates with its commingling of religion and show biz. In another lively sketch, the just-defeated Herbert Hoover (Kevin Chamberlin) and his wife (Peil) are preparing to leave the White House, propelled by ill-will that includes harsh words for the incoming Franklin Roosevelt and a Bronx cheer for Hoover cabinet members.
There's also some mild fun in seeing Crawford (Judy Kuhn) and Fairbanks (Howard McGillin) hold a press conference to announce their divorce, only to get bogged down in a quarrel over billing. Kuhn also plays the socialite Hutton who, about to embark on the first of many marriages, leads two suitors and her chauffeur in the song "How's Chances?" One of the blander sketches involves John D. Rockefeller Jr. (Wong) trying to give Radio City to his cantankerous father, 94-year-old John D. Sr. (McGillin), as a birthday present. Another has to do with a hotel staff putting on airs inspired by a just-departed guest, Noel Coward.
A much cleverer notion comes at the close, with a Supreme Court decision that a final number doesn't have to be a reprise. So the closing song is one that hasn't yet been sung, "Not for All the Rice in China," that is not without room for some mini-reprises. The gentle finish makes it clear that, back in 1933, the show was aimed at making money rather than drawing blood.
|AS THOUSANDS CHEER|
Sketches by Moss Hart
Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
Directed by Christopher Ashley
Musical staging by Kathleen Marshall
With Kevin Chamberlin, Judy Kuhn, Howard McGillin, Paul Newsome, Mary Beth Peil and B. D. Wong
Set design by Allen Moyer
Costume design by Jonathan Bixby and Gregory A. Gale
Lighting design by Kirk Bookman
Projection design by Wendall K. Harrington
Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow Street
Performances began 6/2/98, opened for a limited run June 14, 1998
Reviewed June 19 by Allan Wallach