Review
Little Me


THE OAKLAND PRESS, WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 5, 1994


Theatrics, fun make memorable ‘Me’

By JOHN KENNETT

The Birmingham Theatre’s briskly campy, dazzlingly funny revival of the great comic musical, “Little Me,” is light out of darkness for a theater whose marquee has flickered recently due to artistic short circuits.

The frustration of the last three misconceived Birmingham productions – “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Jake’s Women” and “Anything Goes” – is shattered with Worth Gardner’s slick ensemble rendering of a musical romp every lover of sketch comedy and show tunes must see to believe.

While some producers consider it unfriendly or unfair for critics to pick on past shows, “Little Me” unmistakably feels like spring-time after half a season – three shows – of discontent.  No theatergoer should ever be asked to check his intelligence at the door.

But “Little Me” is not just good in comparison to the past dim bulbs.  It’s just plain good.

Framed in designer James Morgan’s cartoonish baroque proscenium, detailed with gold cherubs and bare-breasted goddesses, we’re in celebrity Belle Poitrine’s Long Island manse, where writer Patrick Dennis has come to take down her memoirs.

For the next two hours, Belle’s wild rags-to-riches adventures, told with the help of a robust, satiric score by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman, will spill out through three ornate upstage doors (a visual link to Roman comedies).

Gardner, who last spring directed the Birmingham’s thrilling revisionist “Oklahoma!,” stages a lifetime of colorful characters in that one room.  Doors swing, gowns glitter, feathers fly, and a runway around the orchestra pit lights up as if Dolly Levi were about to make an entrance.

The Older Belle and her interviewer are crowded out by a troupe of 10 led by an ingénue Younger Belle (the big-voiced, muscular actress Courtenay Collins) and a gifted comic actor

Named Jonathan Beck Reed, playing a gaggle of Belles beaus.

The reputation of this “Little Me” precedes itself with Gardner’s inspired choice to cast off-Broadway drag actor Charles Busch as the Older Belle.  This no-excuses performance works wondrously not because Busch is a belter – his voice is about character, not power – but because he pays such accurate homage to resilient female pop culture personalities.

Looking mature, pale and waxy as if his Belle is fresh from Madame Tussaud’s museum, Busch has the charm of a Carol Channing, the singing voice of a Lucille Ball and the intermittent hell-with-you bitterness of an older Bette Davis.

When he strips off part of his gown and wears only a silvery hip-length jacket, displaying fabulous, shimmery legs that rival the ingénue's gams, you gasp and you laugh.

It’s such a campy nightclub moment – at once about exposure, pride and showbiz.  The fiftysomething Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera make their livings by whipping off their skirts and flaunting their upkeep.

Busch offers the same flourish.  In effect, he’s rolling up h is sleeves.

As he did with his spare and hip version of “The Wizard of Oz,” director-choreographer Gardner invites us along on a trip where theatricalism, rather than subversive, kinky transvestism is celebrated.

This gender-flopping cast, playing multiple roles, is tiny but enormously varied and energy-packed.  They make the most of the first-act song, “Deep Down Inside,” wherein Belle transforms a miser (Reed) into a benefactor and gets the first of her three goals – “wealth, culture and social positions.”

She’s doing it all to snare Noble Eggleston, a rich kid so impressive he simultaneously attends both Harvard and Yale.

Noble is Role No. 1 for the dexterous Reed, an actor who alternately conjures the essence of Charles Grodin, Jerry Lewis, Chevy Chase, Mel Brooks and Steve Martin as he portrays a French nightclub singer, a Austro-Hungarian film director, a nebbishy nearsighted doughboy and a European prince.

But Reed is Reed.  He never apes other actors, he just reminds you what a kick in the pants this fizzy early Neil Simon venture, based on the Dennis novel, can be.

Commissioned as a vehicle for Sid Caesar, “Little Me” succeeds as a nod to “Your Show of Shows” and such successors as “The Carol Burnett Show,” but it also shines as a jaunty musical, complete with requisite hit tunes like “I’ve Got Your Number” (in the mode of Leigh and Coleman’s “Witchcraft”) and the lilting, waltzy “Real Live Girl.”

And Act 1 ends with a number written for the 1982 revival: It’s a grand, growling moment for Busch when he detours the painful trip down memory lane, exclaiming, “Don’t Ask the Lady What the Lady Did Before.”

Coming down front in a satiny pajama suit, Busch walks the runway and sings, “Don’t ask when the lady had it last, ask if the lady wants it now!”

Va-voom.  It’s a great musical comedy moment.

Go have fun.  This company sure is.