Los Angeles Theater Review: CALL ME MADAM (Musical Theatre Guild)

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by Tony Frankel on November 23, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


It’s amazing what critics and audiences alike are willing to forgive when they’re in the presence of a true star. Regardless of some bouncy and hummable Irving Berlin tunes in Call Me Madam, the book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse is basically a dog. Based on Perle Mesta, the millionairess political socialite and renowned party-giver who was awarded ambassadorship to Luxembourg by President Harry Truman, Lindsay and Crouse (State of the Union, The Sound of Music) created Sally Adams, who is appointed U. S. Ambassadress to the fictional European country of Lichtenburg. The book is meant to satirize America’s proclivity for loaning millions of clams to countries in need, so Sally offers up her personal stash to finance the penurious country’s annual shindig, and then persuades a trio of politicians to finagle a loan of $100 million, much to the chagrin of her new paramour, the suave Foreign Minister Cosmo Constantine. Unfortunately, any true satire is abandoned for stock sit-com humor, and the jokes feel tired even before they’re repeated for comic effect.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s Call Me Madam in Los AngelesWhy, then, was it the third most successful musical of the 1950-51 season after The King and I and Guys and Dolls? Two reasons. The star power of Ethel Merman as Sally, and “You’re Just in Love,” an eleven o’clock number that pairs the “Hostess with the Mostess” with her young press attaché Kenneth Gibson, who has fallen in love with Lichtenburg’s Princess Maria. The latter was a moment that, according to Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times, “throws a little stardust around the theatre and sets the audience roaring.”

At Musical Theatre Guild’s concert staged reading this week, the same number didn’t begin to penetrate the dust that had already settled in the theater, but my heart was set a-roaring knowing that I would soon be released from this truly misguided and lackluster effort.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s Call Me Madam in Los AngelesTo start with, Eileen Barnett, who previously wowed with her portrayals of matrons in A New Brain and Little Women at MTG, has neither the brass nor belt to sell the role of Sally. She seemed so nonchalant that I would have cast her as the hostess of a Tupperware party given by Stepford Wives. Jeffrey Christopher Todd certainly looked and acted the role of Kenneth, the serious and bespectacled attaché who wonders why he hears singing and there’s no one there, but his voice was strangely strained when it needed to be lyrical, youthful, and sweet. Gordon Goodman was in splendid voice, as usual, for Cosmo, but he had cardboard chemistry with Ms. Barnett. And poor Robin DeLano came off less like a lovesick Princess and more like a dazed and drugged Lindsay Lohan who had been hit in the head with a two-by-four.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s Call Me Madam in Los AngelesApparently, the Lichtenburg of MTG is the land of many accents: From German to Dutch to Euro-trash, the actors were clearly left to their own devices. As Grand Duke Otto, David Holmes sounded like a cross between Heimlich the caterpillar in A Bug’s Life and Bernie Kopell’s Siegfried in Get Smart.

Director John Bowab must have thought that a sit-com-esque script needed to be staged like the sit coms he has successfully directed for television (The Cosby Show, Facts of Life), but without a much-needed burlesque mentality, almost every single physical shtick, slow burn, and line delivery fell flat. Not just flat… hard. You could hear the thud reverberate to the back of the theater. Just as Charles Repole and Bill Russell clipped and fixed the old-fashioned show into a tolerable concert version many years ago, one wishes that Bowab could have done the same with his actors (Bowab directed a very successful revival of this same updated script of Call Me Madam for Reprise in 2000, so go figure).

And what accounts for the voicing issues with both the orchestra and the chorus? Harmonies often overtook the melody lines. Was it music director Eddy Clement or an uncredited sound designer? Or maybe the theater gremlins descended upon the Alex last Monday, because Goodman’s mic sputtered and crackled to spine-chilling effect. In the chorus was my all-time favorite, the gorgeous and electrifying Jennifer Shelton, who I couldn’t even hear when she sang into a standing microphone.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema review of Musical Theatre Guild’s Call Me Madam in Los AngelesAnd, listen, it’s not that Call Me Madam is so excruciatingly ghastly that it can’t be saved by a swell production (a few productions in the last year, including London, received fairly ecstatic reviews). When the adorable dancers (Nicholas Gutierrez, Daron O’Donnell, Cody Rogers, Daniel Switzer, and Estevan Valdes) executed Jane Lanier’s wholly original and downright fun choreography, they earned a well-deserved applause before the numbers were over. And Helen Geller was the only representation of what this show could be with her small but mighty turn as the Grand Duchess Sophie. In Geller’s short time on stage, Madam was at once perfectly cast, authentic, funny, and charming.

Given the many times that Musical Theatre Guild has hit some rarely-produced musicals out of the park with just 25 hours of rehearsal, I consider this simply an anomaly. After the Alex, MTG moves to Thousand Oaks for one more performance, after which we can misquote the sign on Harry Truman’s desk and say, “The Bus and Truck stops here.”

photos by Alan Weston

Call Me Madam
Musical Theatre Guild at the Alex Theatre, played November 19, 2012
plays at the Janet and Ray Scherr Forum Theatre on November 25, 2012
for tickets, call 818.848.6844 or visit http://www.musicaltheatreguild.com

{ 1 comment }

Henry Slovick November 25, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Sorry to tell you, but Mr. Bowab’s Reprise “production” was as dreadful as the MTG, even with Karen Morrow, who could not overcome what Mr. Bowab put around her. I’m afraid MTG has to bear the responsibility for this.

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