Review of Encores! Call Me Madam at New York City Center

  • Our critic's rating:
    February 8, 2019
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    Well, you do leave the theater humming the tunes! Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just In Love” walked all the way down W. 55th Street with me to the F train.

    As is often the case at New York City Center’s well-regarded Encores! series, nostalgia is the prime mover of audience sentiment. Last night’s audience loved every single minute of Call Me Madam. The place was jammed — looked like a sell out. Given the vintage of the crowd, underscored by the Rollator parking lot just outside the Gents, and the high shine bouncing off those comb-overs, this was a crowd primed for nostalgia.

    So let me just say it. I found the first act annoying, the songs overlong to the point of tedium. (That may say more about my attention span than anything else.) That said, the second act delivers. It benefits by reprising “It’s a Lovely Day Today,” a charming duet with Jason Gotay and Lauren Worsham, which you loved in act one, and probably always have.

    Act two also leans heavily on the durable chemistry between Carmen Cusack and Jason Gotay as they engage the harmonies of “You’re Just In Love.” What’s more, we get one of Berlin’s affectionate tributes to vaudeville, with the roistering trio of Brad Oscar, Stanley Wayne Mathis, and Adam Heller, as they deliver “They Like Ike,” replete with straw hats and time-steps. I’m saying the second act gets it done.

    It’s a 7:30 curtain, although management relies on the indulgence of an audience rich with regulars. First, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel recaps a short history of City Center; then there is a short film tribute to City Center, and finally the curtain rises revealing the star of the show to my thinking — the orchestra. Under the certain hand of Rob Berman, the Encores! orchestra moves stylishly through the rich and memorable magic of Berlin’s score.

    They’re wonderful, everything an orchestra ought to be. What’s great here is the orchestra remains the leading character throughout. You are not allowed to forget them down there in the pit nor to wonder if they’re recorded. They should join all the unions — while they are musicians first, they are also backdrop, scenery and comic relief. (although I don’t think there’s a union for that.)

    It’s a huge company, offering up a handful of shiny moments. Worsham and Gotay as the young couple are spot on. Michael Benjamin Washington is winningly pretentious; the leads are reliable, and near the close, a couple of comic icons stroll into the action with a bit of business.

    There were a few, but then again too few to mention, moments when the cast went up on lines which makes you wonder just how much time do they get for rehearsal. The dancers were on it. No matter what part of them hurt, they convinced us it was huge fun up there. And, bottom line, despite my first act issues, I’d buy a ticket —  it was fun to be there.

    (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

    "[Ethel] Merman’s clarion voice, brusque style and ha-cha-cha exuberance made her musical theater’s indispensable star for decades. But it also made most of the vehicles tailored to her gifts difficult fits for anyone else. That at any rate is the impression left by the pulse-lowering Encores! production of Call Me Madam that opened on Wednesday at City Center, directed by Casey Hushion and starring Carmen Cusack in the Merman role. Ms. Cusack, a strong performer in other circumstances — she emerged gleaming from the wreckage of Bright Star in 2016 — is overpowered here by material that, if it can work at all today, can do so only when rough-handled by a mauler."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "You can't begrudge Encores! for celebrating the 75th anniversary of its home base, City Center, by bringing back one of its biggest successes. Call Me Madam was the first entry of the company's second season back in 1995, and a lot was riding on it. Their first season had been critically well-received but unprofitable, and a hit was needed. The best way to have a hit is to get a star, and they got one in Tyne Daly, who scored a triumph in the lead role originally played by Ethel Merman in the 1950 Broadway production. It wasn't the first time Daly had proved she could make a role originated by Merman her own, having won a Tony as Rose in a 1989 Broadway revival of Gypsy. It would be terrific to report that the series' new production was equally invigorating. Sadly, Carmen Cusack, who was Tony-nominated for her Broadway debut in Steve Martin and Edie Brickell's Bright Star, doesn’t quite have the larger-than-life presence necessary to lift this flimsy star vehicle. She does, however, have a gorgeous voice and charm to spare, and these assets, along with Irving Berlin's terrific score and some deftly amusing supporting performances, make this Call Me Madam enjoyable if not spectacular."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter