When it is dancing, "Perfectly Frank" is perfectly swell; when it is singing, it is rarely less than engaging; and when it is talking, which is happily infrequently, it is mostly marking time. The brightly-staged songest for which the late Frank Loesser wrote all the lyrics and, in addition to 17 other composers, set down the music, opened last night at the Hayes.
It wasn't until 1942, by which time Loesser was already established as one of Hollywood's outstanding lyricists, that he began writing his own tunes ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition"). And although he continued to collaborate off and on for many years thereafter, he established himself as a full-fledged composer in 1948 with his first Broadway score, "Where's Charley?," followed two years later by his most brilliant effort, "Guys and Dolls."
Working with such a wide variety of composers - the list extends from Arthur Schwartz ("They're Either Too Young or Too Old"), Burton Lane ("The Lady's in Love With You") and Hoagy Carmichael ("Heart and Soul") to Lawrence Welk ("Bubbles in the Wine") and many forgotten writers - it is small wonder that when Loesser turned to composing, his music was marked by eclecticism. There was never a Loesser sound in the sense that there is a readily identifiable Rodgers sound, Gershwin sound or Kern sound.
Possibly in order to compensate for the show's lack of musical individuality and still do honor to its hero, "Perfectly Frank," while wisely ignoring any chronological order of composition, is broken down into sections. Handsomely and simply designed and costumed, the evening, with a cast of 10, which includes Loesser's widow, Jo Sullivan, spins and sparkles through scenes bearing such labels as "USO Show," "Screen Test" and "Manhattan" to name a few.
One such section, with Sullivan, who created the role of Rosabella, and baritone David Holliday, is devoted to selections from Loesser's most ambitious, though flawed, effort "The Most Happy Fella." And the finale, following custom in this sort of thing, is devoted to a rapid run-through of snatches from a couple of dozen pieces not heard earlier.
The most effective passage in the entire evening comes late in the second half in a portion entitled "Blues." It opens with the nice but perfectly ordinary Loesser-Jimmy McHugh song "Can't Get Out of This Mood," torchily sung by a writhing Virginia Sandifur (this stunning and versatile performer, also heard in a funny "The Moon of Manakoora" and amusingly sultry "The Boys in the Backroom," is one of the show's brightest lights), continues with a dazzling dance by Don Correia to "Luck Be a Lady", and concludes with Debbie Shapiro's exultantly show-stopping singing of an obscure 1934 song, "Junk Man," with music by Joseph ("California, Here I Come") Mever.
Other high spots include the slinky, blonde, chiseled-featured Andra Akers delivering "Adelaide's Lament," that Loesser classic from "Guys and Dolls"; a jitterbug dance by the fleet-footed Wayne Cilento and a tiny blond bundle named Jill Cook to "Murder, He Says" (another McHugh tune); a novel staging of the narcissistic washroom-mirror song "I Believe in You" (from "How to Succeed, etc."), featuring David Ruprecht; Sullivan's quiet "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year"; an "understudy rehearsal" scene for "Where's Charley?" bringing Cook and Correia together in the clever "Make a Miracle" and "My Darling, My Darling"; and, it goes without saying, the "Fugue for Tinhorns," that knockout "Guys and Dolls" opening trio.
While it is an open secret that director-choreographer Ron Field lent a helping hand during the preview weeks, Tony Stevens is credited with the zingy dances and Fritz Holt with the brisk direction. The stylish scenery and costumes are by John Falabella, and the first-rate lighting is by Ken Billington. Bill Byers has provided perky orchestrations for the pit band.
Taking one thing with another, including some smarmy and-then-Frank-wrote interjections by Sullivan, "Perfectly Frank" is a lively, tuneful and diversified entertainment.
When a lyricist turns composer the two of them can often make beautiful music together. This is obviously true of Frank Loesser, one of the giants of Broadway/Hollywood music.
It would be ridiculous to call him an unsung hero, because happily more than 10 years after his death you can scarcely escape from his music. He wrote standards when people still had standards. But Loesser, who created 1500 songs (at first just lyrics, but increasingly after the beginning of WWII also the music), has perhaps never quite been given his proper place on Broadway's honor rolls.
This is why it is such an enormous pleasure to welcome the new revue Perfectly Frank, which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater and is perfectly devoted to Loesser, tunesmith extraordinary.
The trouble and transmogrifications of the show have already been much discussed in the public prints. Forget them. Apparently it started out as a species of a book musical, in which the composer's widow, Jo Sullivan, and the singer David Holliday put the audience wandering down memory lane reminiscing about the life and times of Frank Loesser. This psuedo-book has been abandoned, although fortunately not the performers, and clearly the loss and the less is more Loesser.
For people interested in arcane Broadway gossip - and who reading a column such as this isn't? - the director Fritz Holt and the choreographer Tony Stevens in the sensitive words of Playbill "wish to acknowledge Ron Fields and John Calvert for their contribution to this production." So who did what, and which, and to whom, is anyone's guess. But the cast seems to have a field day.
Let me confess I am always a little suspicious of the sing-along musical revues, which seem to savor more of cabaret than theater. With a few guys and dolls and a following spot, enough electronic equipment to record WWIII, and a good music staff, you can make any popular composer, even Mozart, into an evening of entertainment.
So we must define just what is being presented. This is not a musical in the ordinary sense. It is a selection of great songs very handsomely and, often, dramatically staged. It eventually adds up to a splendid evening.
In honesty some of the show's pre-opening difficulties have left their traumatic mark. It does not run as effortlessly as it should, could and possibly will. Had I been the producer, I would have tried to have gotten overcall money from my backers and stayed in preview for another two weeks. But at times such choosers can become beggars.
The permanent set by John Falabella looks like a miniature version of the proscenium opening of the Radio City Music Hall, which unfortunately emphasizes the show's glintz, glitter and minimal content. Falabella's costumes however, are fine, and those for the women most agreeably sexy.
Of course, once you understand the nature of the show you will not be going to see Perfectly Frank for any other reason than the frank glories of Loesser.
These are some of the songs you either grew up with or heard from later. Guys and Dolls, Where's Charley?, The Most Happy Fella, How to Succeed in Business - these are part of the fabric of Broadway.
However, I have forgotten how many great singles Loesser had written - sometimes just the lyrics, such as The Boys in the Backroom, or Two Sleepy People, and sometimes in his handsome double function, such as his debut as a composer in Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, to the curvacious music and lyrics of Baby, It's Cold Outside.
The cast is a honey. The standouts are a couple of sensational blondes, the kind who have given blondes a nice name, both glistening with talent, Virginia Sandifur and Andra Akers, and that prince of the Broadway gypsies, Wayne Cilento.
And frankly, any show that sends me out humming Once in Love With Amy must get my unconditional vote. Loesser was a genius. If I were a bell I'd be ringing, hopefully at the Helen Hayes box office.
Frank Loesser wrote just four hit Broadway shows, and yet it's impossible to imagine the American musical theater without him. In one score alone, "Guys and Dolls," he apotheosized the Broadway spirit with a vibrancy that's rarely been matched. His range was boundless. He created roof-raising showstoppers ("Luck Be a Lady"), romantic confections ("If I Were a Bell") and hilarious comic turns ("Take Back Your Mink"), not to mention ballads ("I've Never Been in Love Before") that can bring most anyone to tears. While Loesser's music and lyrics were sophisticated and often intricate, he always spoke directly from both the mind and heart. That's why his theater songs, from "Once in Love With Amy" in "Where's Charley?" (1948) through "I Believe in You" in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" (1961), haven't dated at all since his death, at age 59, in 1969.
"Perfectly Frank," the new and long-overdue Loesser revue that arrived at the Helen Hayes last night, contains well over 60 of his songs. As one expects, there's not a clinker in the bunch. Indeed, the musical riches of this evening are so abundant that it's tempting to overlook the shortcomings of the show that contains them. But that, I'm afraid, is not always possible. Though "Perfectly Frank" has other assets besides its song catalogue - including several gifted performers - it is also pervaded by an aura of tackiness that is antithetical to the Loesser spirit. At the Hayes, one finds Broadway professionalism at both its best and worst on the very same stage.
Some aspects of "Perfectly Frank" are perfect. Virtually every major Loesser hit pops up, including many of his Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley collaborations with such other superb songwriters as Arthur Schwartz, Jule Styne, Hoagy Carmichael and Burton Lane. What's more, there is a first-rate pit band, under the direction of Yolanda Segovia, playing new Bill Byers orchestrations that often top the originals. When Miss Segovia's musicians swing into a few bars from "Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat" during the overture, the audience is quickly primed for a giddy journey back to a golden era of pop music.
Once the cast of 10 appears and launches into the various medleys, that mood is upheld roughly half the time. As it happens, the better half of "Perfectly Frank" is the female half. Fritz Holt, the director, has assembled a team of women singer-dancers, both familiar and unfamiliar, who are fully in tune with the Loesser oeuvre. And he may even have discovered a star. The tall, curly-headed Debbie Shapiro has a powerhouse voice and theatrical authority suitable for seemingly all occasions; she's equally at home in the poignant World War II hit "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" and the torchy "The Lady's in Love With You." When she applies her talents to the bluesy "Junk Man" in Act II, Miss Shapiro explodes with a ferocity worthy of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." You had better believe she's on Broadway to stay.
Not that one wants to slight her colleagues. Jill Cook is a sprightly, gaminesque dancer in "My Darling, My Darling," and Andra Akers is a fetching, blowsy comedienne who has a ball with "They're Either Too Young or Too Old." Virginia Sandifur has a hearty voice that was destined to caress such duets as "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "I Like Everybody"; she rises to a sexy peak in the smoky "Can't Get Out of This Mood." It is also a pleasure to remake the acquaintance of Jo Sullivan, Loesser's widow and this revue's unofficial narrator. Miss Sullivan looks as lovely as she did when she appeared in her husband's "The Most Happy Fella" in 1956. She still brings a strong soprano to that magnificent score's most moving songs, "My Heart Is So Full of You" and "Somebody, Somewhere."
It's too bad that the five men of "Perfectly Frank" aren't remotely in the same league. While some of them have big voices (notably David Holliday and Jim Walton) or are accomplished showbiz dancers (Wayne Cilento and Don Correia), none of them has much of a personality. Whatever the difference in their ages or in the color of their blow-dried hair, these performers are all interchangeable, blandly cheery chorus boys. Even in their best songs and most pyrotechnic dance routines (nicely choreographed by Tony Stevens with assistance from Ron Field), they lack the character that might make the numbers take off. What they provide instead is the impersonally brassy showmanship one associates with Las Vegas floor shows and television variety specials.
That wan spirit carries over to other crucial aspects of "Perfectly Frank" as well. John Falabella's flimsy all-purpose set, with its silly musical-note motif, looks cheap and soiled. The show's uncredited dialogue, scant as it may be, is mostly vulgar. There are two cutesy and flat opening sequences that get the show off to a depressing start. The later, half-hearted attempts to set the songs in comic sketches are stale and forced, as are the jokes about such diverse topics as Hollywood screen tests and Playgirl magazine. Though Miss Sullivan's reminiscences about her husband are charming, they at times sound either jarring or glib in this glitzy context.
Such gaffes certainly could have been avoided. Given its subject and much of the talent in view, this show should have the polish and assured tone of "Ain't Misbehavin'." But if "Perfectly Frank" is a decidedly mixed evening, it nonetheless adds a welcome note to the season. Somehow Broadway always feels more like Broadway when Frank Loesser's songs are being sung.