It’s often the case in my theater-going-and-reviewing cycle that by the end of May, I’m running behind. This year, too, I have a number of shows I’d planned to write about that I haven’t yet found time for. Now that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, I’m going to work my way through as many as I can, starting with Me and My Girl at Encores, which I saw a bit over two weeks ago.
New York’s beloved Encores! series of musicals-in-concert finished off their peculiarly bumpy 25thanniversary season with another oddity that didn’t work: Me and My Girl. On paper, at least, it meets the standard criteria for Encores: a Broadway run, but a show that subsequently fell into relative obscurity.
In this case, though, it’s less the obscurity of Me and My Girl that surprises us than its mid-1980s Broadway success (1,420 performances).
The Broadway version was, to be sure, substantially reworked from its original source, a 1937 West End hit by Noel Gay (music), and Douglas Furber and L. Arthur Rose (book and lyrics). That Me and My Girl had a few songs that achieved hit status (“The Lambeth Walk,” “Leaning on a Lamp Post”), but was a delicate soufflé of a piece, not likely to please American tastes. Its story—in both versions—is the tale of Bill Snibson, a brash Cockney bloke who suddenly inherits a fortune and a title and must reconcile this with his plebian lifestyle and equally low-born girlfriend, Sally.
Even tarted up, re-orchestrated in glitzier style with additional Noel Gay songs added and the book re-written, Me and My Girl remains a veddy, veddy British confection. In fact, I’d say the show really needs two key ingredients to work—Englishness and charm. At Encores, it had neither.
Instead, director/choreographer Warren Carlyle cranked things up even further, pushing the thin jokes too hard, and allowing little opportunity for the show to find any heart or breathing room. A few frenetic dance numbers were enjoyable on their own, particularly “The Sun Has Got His Hat On,” which was (pun intended) the Gayest thing on stage, maybe ever.
More often, though, Me and My Girl was blaring and tedious, its ensemble providing merely a burlesque approximation of the accents and style.
Originally on Broadway, the show’s winning playing card was its cast. George S. Irving, Jane Connell and others provided stellar support. Even better, Bill and Sally were played by Robert Lindsay and Maryann Plunkett, two exceptionally fine actors who also possessed song and dance skills, and charm by the bucketful. (I can’t over-emphasize how necessary this is, but I can provide evidence – watch this video of “Leaning on a Lamp Post “performed by George Formby, the novelty vaudeville singer and ukulele player, who—with the merest whisper of a voice—makes something enchanting of it.)
At Encores, a number of able performers were pressed into service. A few—Lisa O’Hare especially—rose to the challenge, but most overworked the slender material, with the usually wonderful Harriet Harris particularly flailing. In the principal female role of Sally, Laura Michelle Kelly sang well but unmemorably, and failed to suggest any real personality.
But nowhere was the disconnect between what Me and My Girl needs and the inadequate substitute it got here more glaring than in the performance of its leading man, Christian Borle. He’s become a favorite of Encores, and I’m damned if I can figure out why. He moves well, but is really not a dancer; his singing voice is mediocre. His Cockney accent was barely passable, and his acting mostly involved sketch comedy nudging and winking. None of this, however, dimmed his signature manner—an overwhelming sense of self-confidence that rolls over the footlights like a tidal wave. “Of course, you love me,” he seems to be saying. “Who wouldn’t? And even if my singing, dancing, and acting are far from the top-tier, my charm will carry the day.”
It doesn’t. In fact, Borle’s singular lack of it was the nail in the coffin for Me and My Girl. Watching him, I remembered a line from Boys in the Band that could have been written for him: “You don’t have charm; you have counter-charm.”
In better news, the musicals chosen for Encores’ in 2019—Call Me Madam, I Married an Angel, and High-Button Shoes—are considerably stronger than the last group. Still, there are many other titles that should long ago have risen to the top of the list. As I have suggested before—but feel even more strongly following this season—Jack Viertel should now gracefully step down as Artistic Director. It’s time for some new ideas.