Ann Miller, every shiny black hair in place, is svelte and can still shake a shapely leg and do a mean tap routine, and Mickey Rooney, her co-star in last night's "Sugar Babies" at the Hellinger, is a round, gray-haired, baggy-pants bundle of energy, but burlesque is dead, dead, dead, and it is the misfortunte of "Sugar Babies" that it insists of showing us why.
Although there are pretty girls to spare in lavish, amusing, mildly revealing and altogether striking costumes by Raoul Pene du Bois, who also provided the simple sets, the show is built mainly around several classic burlesque comedy routines adapted by Ralph G. Allen. They are no longer funny, if they ever were, or perhaps Allen or Rooney and his fellow comics, or the sketch director Rudy Tronto have missed a beat here and there or muffed a blackout line. The broad double entendres fall flat. Or perhaps the difficulty is that whereas, visually, "Sugar Babies" (the title refers to the line of girls) belongs on Broadway, in most other respects it reeks of 14th St.
It has its moments. The best of them comes late in the show when the two stars are alone on stage and Rooney, accompanying himself at the piano, launches a medley of Jimmy McHugh songs with a softly-sung chorus of "I Can't Give You Anything but Love." Then Miller, whose singing voice (I assume it's her voice, because the way everything and everybody is miked, one can't be sure where any of the sounds are actually coming from) is strong and sure, sails into "I'm Shooting High." This is followed by a comedy duet and then the two wind up with "On the Sunny Side of the Street."
It is generally held that the incursion of strippers ruined burlesque, but it was Coward's observation about opera, that burlesque ruined burlesque. One or two striptease artists of the caliber of a Margie Hart or Gypsy Rose Lee would have been welcome last night. In their place, there were a few semistrip routines that were halfway entertaining. A nod to the late Sally Rand brought out a fan dancer and then an entire chorus of fan dancers to make a pretty, Ziegfeld-like spectacle. A takeoff on the lesser-known Rosita Royce's dove act had doves flying out from the wings to settle on a showgirl's head and arms, but not undoing her clothing. And there were one or two other passable examples.
Specialty acts include Sid Stone's pitchman and candy butcher routines, and Bob Williams' dog act, the one with the mournful-looking creature ( a springer spaniel, a knowledgeable acquaintance informed me) unable to do any tricks or obey commands.
The score is made up almost entirely of Jimmy McHugh melodies, including several unpublished ones for which Arthur Malvin has provided words. The old, familiar ones come across best, as when the girls, on swings, do "Exactly Like You," or when Miller, perched on a box atop a bicycle being pedaled around the stage by one of the comedians (a number borrowed from Ed Wynn when his passenger was Jane Pickens), sings "Don't Blame Me" full blast.
Everybody grins, smiles, struts and walks happy, but it's mostly in vain. Try as they will, "Sugar Babies," like that springer spaniel, refuses to budge most of the time. It ends up with a full-dress patriotic finale, "You Can't Blame Your Uncle Sammy."
Some art forms are deservedly forgotten.
Whatever it was that killed burlesque is not all that evident in Sugar Babies, which opened last night at the Mark Hellinger Theater. With Mickey Rooney, the mighty atom, at his tumultuous best, and Ann Miller tip-tapping her way into second-stardom it should prove a sizeable Broadway hit, especially as the ideal musical for people who don't really want to go see a musical.
Let me tell you a story. Years ago in London I saw a horrendous musical version of Gone With the Wind, which was graced with a very fine horse in the second act. At tne end the producer, his eyes gleaming with Broadway glitter, rushed up and said: "Clive, Clive, what did you think of the show?"
I replied: "When a horse is giving the best performance of the evening you're in trouble." Unabashed, he cried: "Does that mean you didn't like it?"
There was much in Sugar Babies I liked but I admit that apart from the indefatigable, inextinguishable, lovable and perfectly inimitable Rooney, the dog was giving the best performance of the evening.
This dog has the best man act I have ever seen. I don't know the name of the dog, but the guy he has trained is Bob Williams, who has, of course, become comparatively famous as one of the best trained men in the business. The dog trained this man to try to make him do things, and act like a perfect, if charming, idiot, while the dog himself pretends to be lazy and lets Williams run frantically through quite clever routines. This is a delight.
Apart from the dog, the show itself is wonderfully slick, and offers perhaps a somewhat sanitized version of old-time burlesque. There are oodles of pulchritudinous maidens - at one place they do the classic virgin dance "from memory" - but the only strip tease artist on view finishes her act with a beautifully contrived trick that would not have pleased the guys round the runway. And how can you have burlesque without a single pastie, or, to be accurate, a single pair of pasties because that is how they sell them.
The show has been conceived by Ralph C. Allen and Harry Rigby as a no expense spared homage to a classic American theatrical form, that could find its roots stretching back from the British music hall of Fred Karno and his ilk, way back to the commedia dell 'arte in 15th-century Italy.
A few of the most revered sketches have been preserved, and the jokes are chiefly embalmed by time and are almost all conceived in a vein of schoolboy smuttiness that is unlikely to shock the post-Lenny Bruce generations.
It is all very nostalgic - there is a fan dance, very beautifully choreographed, a dove dance, with a whole dovecote team of clever doves, although connoisseurs of the form should note that all the young ladies are fully clothed. The show ends with a patriotic finale about Uncle Sam.
Ernest Flatt has staged and choreographed the show - except for the sketches left in the stylish hands of Rudy Tronto - with all the gloss of wet paint, but not perhaps quite enough of the tackiness. The show, with its lavish Raoul Pene du Bois scenery and costumes, seems aimed at imitating the Ziegfeld Follies rather than the humbler reaches of burlesque.
In this respect I rather prefer the sleazier, more ribald downtown burlesque resuscitation called Big Bad Burlesque, which strikes a more human note.
Still the Broadway belles are pretty and plentiful, Ann Miller pluckily looking like a frozen clone of her former self is spirited, and there are some neat old burlesque comics.
My favorites were Sid Stone, doing a sly-eyed low-keyed con-act, trying to give gold watches and filthy books away with candy bars, and the stiff-backed Jack Fletcher with his built-in glance of hauteur. But, apart from the pooch, the show is solidly on the shoulders of Broadway's most promising newcomer of the year (yes, oddly enough, it is a first) Mr. Rooney.
Rooney delivers with manic grace. He sings, he dances, he plays the piano, he plays the fool, and he is the glorious epitome of the clown. With his lopsided grin, his geriatrically boyish air, his warmth, total naturalness, Rooney is something to experience. For all the synthetic goo poured on by the producers, Rooney is the true icing on Sugar Babies. A top banana if ever we had one.
Every once in a while during the new scholarly disquisition on the art of burlesque, "Sugar Babies," I found myself humming "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and for a while I couldn't figure out why. I knew it wasn't because I'd heard the tinkly old song in another show earlier in the week. I can clear my head when I want to. Then, at last, I figured it out. It's because Mickey Rooney now looks like Santa Claus.
Not at first, he doesn't. As the curtain goes up at the Hellinger, to a surprisingly gentle musical strain from the sometimes disorderly pit, we're looking at a kind of chaste abstraction: a giant brown coat marked here and there with floating black rectangles. When the coat finally turns around to grin at us, we do see that it's a mickey-rooney, the grin all rubbery and the rest of it as malleable as unbaked gingerbread.
But it's not until he starts stripping things away during a Jimmy McHugh tune bluntly called "A Good Old Burlesque Show" that he begins to resemble S. Claus, or T. Belch, or S. J. Falstaff, or possibly Bozo Snyder. The new illusion may be due to the fact that Mr. Rooney's proportions have ballooned a bit since we shared his tears in "Boys Town." (The present production does not resemble "Boys Town.") It may be due to the fact that he strips all the way down to his very red long underwear. It may be due to the fact that his hair, when we see it, is scarcely more than three triangles of white fluff standing straight up over his ears, perhaps in fright at how little is left of it. And it may just be due to the fact that he is bringing us presents, including Ann Miller (to whom we will get, just be patient).
The occasion is essentially a Rooney occasion (it seems to me extremely unlikely that anyone would have shaken the mothballs out of 60-year-old burlesque routines and done them, throttle open and all flags flying, without him), and the indefatigable Rooney is exactly as energetic and exactly as talented as he was when, at the age of 3 or 4, he rammed a cigar into his mouth, raked a derby over his brow, and made a star of himself. Which is very, very energetic and even more talented.
The talent is applied, in "Sugar Babies," to materials that were never meant to be lofty but that have been authenticated by a professor from the University of Tennessee (what can the University of Tennessee be thinking of, as if I didn't know?) and whose own educational background includes Amherst, Yale, and, obviously, various other places. (Name: Ralph G. Allen.) The jokes are the jokes our granddaddies thought spicy, and Mr. Rooney's look of horror as a double entendre escapes him is hilarious. He also has deeply satisfying ways of getting rid of bold, bad, nostalgically heart-warming puns, kicking one of them into the wings with a backflip of his blinding white shoes, showing another his flexed muscle to send it leaping over the footlights and straight up the aisle.
The sketches follow suit. Courtroom: Mr. Rooney literally flipping his rippling judge's wig as he bounces from the bench to run his ardent nose up murderess Ann Miller's most remarkable leg. School room: Miss Miller whacking Mr. Rooney with a rolled-up newspaper until his curly wig flies off, probably to scurry around the block and take up residence at "Annie." Hotel lobby: oh, why bother? When Mr. Rooney shows up late for rehearsal with a quartet because he has been to "queer practice," he is naturally told that he means "choir practice," only to reply - just as naturally - that it was a "queer choir." You can take it from there, as fellow-fools Jimmy Matthews, Scot Stewart and Peter Leeds certainly do. (This may have been the bit that ends with everyone racing about before a streetdrop in hot pursuit of an elusive small white spotlight that I don't think represents Tinker Bell.)
Anyway, you've got the drift. The star is at his funniest, to my way of thinking, in drag, stalking the stage with a top-heavy waddle that suggests a bisected camel, batting the great false eyelashes that reach to a monstrous coiffeur (looks like a mound of congealed tapioca flecked with dead orange peel), and coming closer to us to let us see that his lip is quivering mightily as he dwells on his (her) misspent life: "Oh friends," he quavers, "it isn't easy for a girl to live along the river." I broke up right there, though I can't say where it'll all catch up with you.
And he is at his best, to my way of thinking, when he joins Miss Miller, or persuades Miss Miller to join him, in an easygoing session at the grand piano. Here, after sprinkling his fingers over the keys for a bit, he drops from his emphatic show-voice to the huskier intimacy with which he once did "Manhattan" (who did it better?), this time for "I Can't Give You Anything but Love." After that, they go lively again for the shared high kicks of "Sunny Side of the Street." (Miss Miller kicks higher than he does.) You will gather I liked Mr. Rooney.
Liked Miss Miller, too, in stunning shape at whatever age she must be, ready to leap from a baggage cart, whip off gloves and overskirt, and tap as though there'd been no yesterday. She's still possessed of a voice as penetrating as a noon whistle, and she can hold onto the note for the word "Blue" until the only thing that's bluer is her eye-shadow. Strides through sketches, split-skirt put to good advantage, with a hammer-and-tongs authority, too. The comics and straight-men are a fast-talking lot; she keeps pace with a cool, haughty, handsome authority.
Are there no misses in the grab-bag? Yes, a few - there's a pitchman selling candy and imported photographs who has to labor at the old jests instead of jauntily tossing them skyward - but how much are you going to cavil about an entertainment that is impurely and simply honest about the wild way things once were? The way things once were includes a fan dance in a blue grotto, a tall blonde in a Greek temple who attracts doves by singing to them (16 by my count), a minstrel show in the dark (black light) with only green banjos and purple gloves visible, and a patriotic finale in which the stately showgirls parade with frigates in full sail perched on their heads. (Is a joke made about that? Yes.) Raoul Pene du Bois's settings are painted and even wrinkled to suggest whatever burlesque Wheel he favored, and his costumes - spider webs of pearls, plumes so high I thought only horses could manage them - boast a nice slapdash smirk. Directors Ernest Flatt and Rudy Tronto work company and material as though arthritis had never been invented.
And I had a grand time, thank you.