Man: "Oh, look at all the empty seats up in the balcony."
Woman: "That's because this show isn't very popular. They really should do more popular shows."
Well, in the first place, this was 10 minutes before showtime, and by the time the curtain rose, there were in fact very few empty seats. But, more important, this interchange seemed to miss the whole point of the Encores series, at least in concept: to showcase musicals that haven't been seen in a while, or have somehow fallen out of the public consciousness.
Now, granted, that hasn't always been the case with every single Encores show: Gypsy, On the Town, and Damn Yankees can hardly be called obscure. But we certainly have Encores to thank for dusting off such fascinating, albeit flawed, gems as Music in the Air, Juno, and Girl Crazy.
Each year, when I discuss George Gershwin in my musical-theater history course at the Boston Conservatory, I challenge my students to name the shows that various Gershwin standards came from. "Someone to Watch Over Me"? "Fascinatin' Rhythm"? "The Man I Love"? (See the answers at the end of this post.) The point is, in the 1920s, songs weren't really written to fit within the context of the shows; they were meant to be hits. It wasn't until Show Boat that people really started to think about integrated scores. The Gershwins started to create more dramatically cohesive songs starting with Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing, and as a result, we don't really remember as many of the numbers from those two shows. Because they were written more for dramatic purposes, the songs are consequently harder to perform out of context.
Girl Crazy most definitely belongs in the pre-Show Boat category of Gershwin works. The show itself is rather unremarkable, except in that it gave rise
to a handful of simply wonderful songs: "But Not for Me," "I Got Rhythm,"
and "Embraceable You." The plot surrounding those songs is sweet but
insubstantial. For me, the best parts of the show were the overture,
the entr'acte, and the exit music, wherein we get to focus exclusively
on George Gershwin's playful, haunting, and just plain amazing music.
Most of the songs in the show have scant set up, although frequently with Encores that's more a function of the script adaptation than a reflection of the quality of the show itself. Even so, Girl Crazy would seem to have more than its share of numbers with questionable relevance or necessity, such as "Sam and Delilah" and "Barbary Coast," the latter including a tap section that added little to the already minimal meaning of the song. It was certainly nice to hear a Gershwin score intact, with just a scattered standard here or there, as opposed to a retrofitted lineup of guaranteed blockbusters, a la My One and Only or Crazy for You. Of course, the flip-side of that pleasure is I had to sit through such forgettable songs as "The Lonesome Cowboy Won't Be Lonesome Now" and "When It's Cactus Time in Arizona." Yeesh.I will admit that some of the one-liners, particularly those poking fun at New York City, were fairly amusing, including the following interchange:
Woman: "Are these the sorts of clothes that smart New York girls are buying these days?"
Man: "Smart New York girls don't buy their own clothes."
As for the cast, Wayne Knight as the fish-out-of-water New York cabbie pretty much stole the show, although to be frank, there wasn't much to steal, and the front door was wide open, as it were. Ana Gasteyer had the unenviable task of belting out a bunch of numbers that made Ethel Merman a star. The best that can be said about the otherwise talented Gasteyer's performance here is that she was loud and could hold the long notes as long as need be. Other than that she was rather mechanical, and her hair and costumes were regrettable, to say the least.
The capable Mark Kudisch was wasted here on a cardboard role. His one big number, the once and would-be showstopper "Treat Me Rough," was undermined by awkward staging and pointless business. (The ukelele? Why?) In the leading male role, Chris Diamantopoulos was pert and energetic, but somewhat forgettable. But the impression that Diamantopoulos made was downright indelible compared to that of his leading lady Becki Newton. I guess Newton stars on "Ugly Betty" or something, which is probably the only reason she got this gig. It certainly wasn't her stage presence.Oh, and a final note to Actors' Equity: Can we once and for all lose the ruse of having the Encores performers carry scripts throughout the show? Not one performer here ever looked at the script in his or her hands. Yeah, I know, the rule is there because the actors are working for a special concert rate, but at this point it merely looks silly.
MINI GERSHWIN QUIZ:
=> "Someone to Watch Over Me," Oh, Kay!
=> "Fascinatin' Rhythm," Lady Be Good
=> "The Man I Love." Trick question. The song never made it into a stage show, at least not in George Gershwin's lifetime, but it was cut from three different shows, including Strike Up the Band. By the time the Gershwin brothers found a place for the song, it had already become a hit, and they didn't want to be accused of interpolating.