Recreating "The Five O'Clock Girl," a 1927 musical comedy of no great distinction that came to the Hayes last night, seems to have been less a labor of love than simply a labor. Were it not for two pretty songs milked for all they're worth, a couple of energetic dance numbers to songs from other sources, and the attractive physical production itself, there'd be little to report on favorably except the evening's genial air.
In most respects, this is stock work given a high shine for Broadway. The book by Guy Bolton, that most indefatigable of Broadway librettists of the period, and his frequent collaborator Fred Thompson, is a variation on a basic theme that I'm beginning to suspect served for every musical comedy written between wars, even the classic "Show Boat." Sweet and down-to-earth young thing falls for rich and/or dashing chap, while soubrette and comic antically underscore the romantic complications of juvenile and ingenue.
In the case of "The Five O'Clock Girl," the heroine Patricia, who works in a street-level laundry, has the suspiciously schizoid habit of anonymously phoning the wealthy young bachelor, Gerald, occupying the penthouse every afternoon at five; not, to be sure, with heavy breathing but sweet nothings.
Instead of driving the poor fellow crazy and prompting a swift retaliation, the calls generate a love affair in which she poses as a society girl. At the same time, her spunky sidekick Susan falls for the rich man's valet Hudgins, masquerading as his master. The present reconstruction, which includes only four songs from the original, at least has the good sense to devote most of its attention to the singing and dancing.
As a team, Kalmar and Ruby were nowhere near the top echelon of Broadway songwriting partnerships of the time, nor even quite up to the second. They were a cut above the Tin Pan Alley regulars, though, producing many hit songs both for shows and the pop market in general. Perhaps their loveliest effort is "Thinking of You," heard repeatedly in "The Five O'Clock Girl," as well as serving for the major part of both acts' overtures. But equally popular in its day and more serviceable within the show is "Up in the Clouds," which is also sung over and over and used for one of the principal dance ensemble numbers.
Lisby Larson, a pretty blond with a sweet voice, plays the demure but resourceful heroine a bit pallidly, while Roger Rathburn, tall and good-looking and with a baritone that tends to go flat on high notes, plays the gent upstairs with a curiously supercilious air evidently meant to indicate breeding. Pat Stanley and Ted Pugh, who get to sing the interpolated "Nevertheless" (a 1931 Kalmar-Ruby pop hit), generate a bit more interest as the comedy pair.
But it is the dancing chorus girls and boys, led by the inexhaustible Barry Preston, who bring the show to life. Preston, a hoofer with that rare quality of never seeming earthbound, could probably leap the scenery given the chance. As it is, his nimble footwork in both halves, especially when leading the dancers in a borrowed number called "Dancing the Devil Away," is the only rousing aspect of the entire evening.
Dee Hoty, a slinky brunette making her Broadway debut, comes off well as the vamp Cora. Sheila Smith, cast as a couturier with a phony French accent who hails from Bayonne, N.J., and Timothy Wallace, playing a chubby Southerner after Cora's hand, fill their tired stock parts adequately, he a bit more so than she.
Once again, Dan Siretta, who has staged the musical numbers and devised the dances, demonstrates his skill in revitalizing obscure old musical comedies, and Sue Lawless has attended to the overall direction attractively. Other assests are John Lee Beatty's two art-deco settings, Nanzi Adzima's colorful costumes for the flappers and their sheiks, and Craig Miller's romantic lighting. Lynn Crigler conducts the small pit band smartly (following custom, the sound of this miked show is controlled from a console at the back of the house).
"The Five O'Clock Girl" would appear to have been an antique of small value in its original state, and it is difficult to understand why so much time and effort have been expended on resuscitating it.
It is an odd, and sometimes disregarded, fact of Broadway history that the modern musical did not really begin until the Rodgers and Hart Pal Joey - which was the start of the serious book musical, with proper characterization, dance used to advance the plot, and songs kept very strictly within the context of the story.
Naturally before Pal Joey, and its trend-setting successor Oklahoma!, there was indeed an American musical theater, which specialized either in revues, or slender musicals with the flimsiest romantic story, and, at their best, a veritable cornucopia of haunting pop songs.
The admirable Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, has over the years carved itself out a special territory in the most stylish revivals of these musicals, some of which have transferred, most successfully, to Broadway.
Last night at the Helen Hayes Theater, the Goodspeed brought another insouciant charmer, the totally adorable and virtually unknown 1927 musical, The Five O'Clock Girl.
It has a little in common - thematically at least - with the famous Comden and Greene musical for Judy Holliday, The Bells Are Ringing. Because it starts with a telephone romance.
A poor young girl who works in a dry cleaners falls in love with a rich young man. Every day at 5 o'clock she intriguingly and anonymously telephones, and he is intrigued. Romance is on the wing. Comic-relief is provided by the rich man's valet and his girl friend, his friend Ronnie, and Madame Irene.
It is simple enough fun. Three things make it worth your special attention. First are the music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This is an enchanting score - most of the numbers you will know, or at least they will seem to be lodged back in your memory somewhere. Nostalgia has rarely had it so good.
Then there is the book by two Britishers, Guy Bolton (who is 95 and still alive and living on the Long Island he has always loved) and Fred Thompson. This guileless but funny story is rather better constructed than most similar work of the period.
Third and last, but probably most significant of all, is the untouchable Goodspeed style, which can make these veteran ramshackle musicals live and glow.
The style is set by the Goodspeed's executive producer, Michael Price, who handles the manner of these old things like an antiquarian turned restorer. Important, indeed vital, on his team is the choreographer Dan Siretta, and here Price is helped by the stylish direction of Sue Lawless, another Goodspeed regular.
The skill is to have the performance just slightly distanced from the material, but never letting it over-balance into camp. This very much depends on the performers and the way in which they succeed in playing as an ensemble.
There have been a few changes of cast since the musical was given at Goodspeed last year, but the tempo, temper and tone remain identical. As the romantic leads, Lisby Larson and Roger Rathburn were charming, Pat Stanley, Ted Pugh and the always stylish Sheila Smith, handled the comedy with finesse, while Barry Preston danced up a storm in his impressive "Dancin' the Devil Away" number.
Add to this the light-hearted scenery by John Lee Beatty and the equally lovable costumes by Nanzi Adzima, and you have a show that hasn't got a thought in its silly little head, except love and music. That's entertainment.
Until it turned up at the Helen Hayes last night, ''The Five O'Clock Girl'' had not been seen on Broadway since its initial production in 1927. There may be a good reason for that. This amiably silly musical comedy, with its less-than-deathless Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby score, was not built for the ages; indeed, it wasn't even the best musical of 1927, which was also the year of Rodgers and Hart's ''A Connecticut Yankee'' and Kern and Hammerstein's ''Showboat.'' Seeing this show now, in a merry but routine production that originated at Connecticut's Goodspeed Opera House, one wonders why it has returned to New York. ''The Five O'Clock Girl'' is not without passing interest as an arcane footnote to theatrical history, but as entertainment in 1981 it's a pretty slim affair.
Unlike recent revivals of such show-biz period pieces as ''No, No Nanette,'' ''Irene'' and ''42d Street,'' this one has not been punched up with star power, opulent sets or truly inventive choreography. Nor, apparently, has it been much rewritten, rethought or cut. The only obvious concession to modern times in ''The Five O'Clock Girl'' is the gratuitous addition of amplification. That's not enough to transform the show's antique patina into either a snazzy contemporary sheen or a nostalgic glow.
The book, by Guy Bolton and Fred Thompson, is a Cinderella story involving a wealthy Beekman Place playboy (Roger Rathburn) and a poor shopgirl (Lisby Larson) who wins his heart in anonymous 5 o'clock phone conversations. For a short while it's fun to see all the anachronistic musical conventions in full flower: the mistaken-identity plot tricks, the class-conscious jokes, the totally illogical song cues that usher in irrelevant production numbers. Broadway buffs may also find it amusing that this show's central story idea later turned up in the far wittier Betty Comden-Adolph Green book for ''Bells Are Ringing'' (1956) and that one of its principal settings, The Kit Kat Club, can be found in the Berlin of ''Cabaret'' (1966).
But these dividends are modest at best. The show's book is tiresomely long, and its gags are unshucked corn. Pretty soon we're living just for the songs, and very few of them prove to be worth living for. Easily the best is ''Thinking of You,'' an innocent pre-Crash ballad that shimmers romantically in Russell Warner's fine orchestrations. ''Up in the Clouds,'' a glamorous penthouse party number, happily recalls the era of black ties and white telephones. The others are nearly forgettable. It's impossible to distinguish ''Manhattan Walk,'' which closes Act I, from ''Long Island Low Down,'' which opens Act II. The lame finale, ''Dancing the Devil Away,'' sounds like an imitation of ''Clap Yo' Hands,'' a Gershwin standard that appeared in ''Oh, Kay!'' a season before ''Five O'Clock Girl'' first opened on Broadway.
While it's doubtful that Gower Champion or Bob Fosse could have enlivened this material, the crew at the Hayes doesn't try overly hard. Sue Lawless, the director, has failed to find a tone for the show. ''The Five O'Clock Girl'' is not ''Porgy and Bess'' or ''Oklahoma!'' - it could use some camp. Miss Lawless is occasionally playful - as when she suddenly fills the sky with stars in sync with a song lyric - but misguided reverence is the order of the evening. Most of the time, the director faithfully and pointlessly reproduces old-fashioned Broadway staging: Alternate scenes take place in front of drops while stagehands change the scenery behind. Once the drops lift, it hardly seems worth the effort. John Lee Beatty's Art Deco Manhattan sets are not nearly so inspired as the rustic Missouri homes he's designed for Lanford Wilson's plays. One hungers for the pizazz of the Deco wonderland Robin Wagner designed for ''On the Twentieth Century.''
The dance numbers that fill the sets also lack a freshness of style. While Dan Siretta is a master of precision and speed, his frenetic choreography tends to exhaust rather than exhilarate the audience. Instead of creating one clever, unifying concept for each number, he strings together a bunch of lesser ideas until finally the dances blur in impact and buckle from overlength. Except in an early song for telephone operators, staged to look like a Vanity Fair illustration, the choreography is mainly just busy. The one opportunity for a simple, charming lovers' duet - ''Nevertheless'' - is left unfulfilled.
The cast is generally of a piece with the show that houses them. Miss Larson, a dead ringer for the young Debbie Reynolds, comes off best; she's an attractive ingenue of refreshing guilelessness. As her sidekick, the pixieish Pat Stanley returns to the stage with her big grin and candied voice intact, but she never gets a song equal to her memorable ''I Love a Cop'' in ''Fiorello!'' The square-jawed leading man, Mr. Rathburn, has the show's best voice, but it issues from a wooden countenance; the best dancer, Barry Preston, only has personality in his limbs. The many comic supporting players are so leaden they might as well be waxworks. If nothing else, they confirm one's impression that ''The Five O'Clock Girl'' is now an artifact for museums, not Broadway.