"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was one of Jule Styne's first Broadway hits. It contributed two standards, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Bye, Bye, Baby," to popular music. It made a star of Carol Channing and was turned into an enormously entertaining film with Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.
No one could imagine it was a show of any interest at all from the lackluster revival that opened Monday night at the Lyceum. I can only assume Tony Randall imported it lock, stock and barrel from the Goodspeed Opera House, in East Haddam, Conn., where it was produced last fall, because he owed the hapless subscribers to his National Actors Theater something and it was easier to import this than to produce something from scratch.
Given the dreary quality of most of what the NAT has produced, this revival fits right in.
This is apparent early in the evening when Lorelei Lee is forced to sail to Paris without her fiance, a button magnate whose father is determined to keep him out of Lorelei's clutches. They sing one of Jule Styne's tenderest ballads, "Bye Bye Baby," but as it's done here, it's so square, so lifeless you'd never know what a great song it is.
Lorelei is played by KT Sullivan, whom I have admired enormously in cabaret. But her Lorelei is a huge disappointment. She has a perpetually vacant expression a la Little Orphan Annie, a monochromatic way of delivering all her lines and no suggestion of playfulness (let alone existential savvy) underneath, which is what makes the character fun. Neither "Diamonds" nor "A Little Girl From Little Rock" packs the wallop it should. Her sidekick, a hoofer, is played by Karen Prunzik, who can hoof with the best of them. But Michael Lichtefeld's choreography is so second-rate that you find yourself admiring how brave she is to keep smiling as if she were doing something dazzling as she executes routine steps.
George Dvorsky and Allen Fitzpatrick sing well and there are some nice comic performances, but this isn't enough. Everything is at so tepid a level Lorelei might just as well be singing about rhinestones.
The good old classic musicals such as "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," which last night returned at the Lyceum Theater, may be temporarily forgotten, but, like Shakespeare's Cleopatra, never stale.
The latest for happy recycling, re-realization and general resuscitation is this joyously assertive and cheekily amusing Jule Styne musical, in the already praised and stunningly stylish Goodspeed Opera House production, here, appropriately enough, sponsored by Tony Randall's National Actors Theater.
"Gentlemen" is not one of the great-great musicals - the book is too feeble and undemanding for such lasting comfort - but it does have a great score, among Styne's best, and it does have, in the person of its diamond-crunching but good hearted heroine, Lorelei Lee, a great role.
The story, adapted by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields from Loos' best-selling novel of the '20s, describes the saga of Lorelei, the little girl from Little Rock, and her disingenuous and charming efforts to snare the millionaire scion of a button fortune.
Even the novel, strong on period atmosphere, had more sly laughs than credibility, and in the musical, by the end of the story such as it is, has tapered down to a dawdling trickle.
But, and this is the key to the evening's pleasures the vitality of the music, its bounce and beauty, as well as Leo Robin's witty lyrics make it a musical that while perhaps hard to like is very easy to adore.
Before his death last year, Styne was personally associated with this Goodspeed production - the first on Broadway since the 1949 original, apart from the wholesale 1974 revision, "Lorelei." Indeed it was the composer himself who suggested the welcome additional number, "A Ride on a Rainbow," from his score for the TV musical "Ruggles of Red Gap."
The current staging by Charles Repole, with its modest but energetically tasteful designs by Eduardo Sicango and imaginative choreography by Michael Lichtefeld, enhances the work, making the presentation a kind of jewelcase for its merits, while doing its best to let the show's defects escape too much attention.
Lorelei Lee, the archetypal dumb blonde who wasn't born yesterday and is therefore, also archetypally, not as dumb as all that - as Forrest Gump's mum might have said "dumb is as dumb does" - is a musical comedy heroine to raise any roof.
Unfortunately anyone trying the role has to face the memories and images of Carol Channing, Lorelei's originator, and Marilyn Monroe, her cinematic alter ego. A difficult act to chase let alone follow, yet KT Sullivan, blank-faced and dizzy, sings handsomely and does well in a manner that suggests Channing while never imitating her.
The two stalwart heroes in the cast, Allen Fitzpatrick as Gus and George Dvorsky as Henry, are both superb in voice and manner, Karen Prunzik makes a scatterbrained tap-dancing whirlwind out of Lorelei's best friend Dorothy, and among the others, all taken from the sterling Goodspeed cast, especially good work is done by Jamie Ross as a zippy, health-food nut, and David Ponting as an attractively dithering British aristocrat.
Talking of dithering - this is the first, last and only produciton of the National Actors Theater this season, but next season, I am assured, it will have recovered from its attack of hiatus and will be back, alive and kicking.
Though the revival of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" started life in November at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut, it now looks as if it spent the last year walking home from Alaska. It's desperate, skinny and exhausted, down to its last few pennies. It wears nothing that wouldn't fit into a backpack.
Presented by the National Actors Theater in association with the Goodspeed, the show opened last night at the Lyceum. It's a major mistake.
Well, you might say, what did you expect? After all, the sensibility of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" -- originally produced in 1949 -- represents the Roaring Twenties, when Anita Loos wrote the novel. In spite of its fine, funny score by Jule Styne and Leo Robin, the show celebrates a kind of mindless musical we have outgrown, with a kind of mindless sexism that's no longer tolerated.
You might also ask what can be done about Lorelei Lee, its heroine, the seminal gold-digging "dumb blonde," who finds it just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. In short, you're saying that "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is out of date.
The argument would be more persuasive if the recording by the great, singular Carol Channing and the original Broadway cast weren't still around, along with the smashing 1953 Marilyn Monroe film version, which is at the video store. Among other things, Lorelei Lee is as pure and bright as her diamonds, though somewhat less hard.
Time may make the heart grow fonder, but time is not responsible for the embarrassing spectacle at the Lyceum.
Rather, it's a lack of vision, style and talent. Charles Repole, the director of the recent, spiffy concert version of "Call Me Madam" at City Center, appears to have lost his bearings here. Working on an obviously limited budget, he might have found ways to make less seem more. He doesn't. Here's a big musical that seems underpopulated. The members of the small chorus appear lonely; the orchestra sounds as if its ranks have been depleted by a virus.
Even more difficult to understand is the casting of K. T. Sullivan as Lorelei. She's pretty, she has a lovely soprano and she is blonde at the moment. Yet she has no apparent stage presence. She has been schooled in what appear to be Ms. Channing's Lorelei mannerisms, especially the bitsy steps and the wide-eyed myopic stare. These were hilarious when executed by the formidable Ms. Channing, a Great Dane believing itself a Pekingese.
When Ms. Sullivan, her eyes large empty saucers, looks out at the audience and sings "I'm Just a Little Girl From Little Rock," she's Bambi caught in the headlights of a tractor-trailer. She looks petrified. "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" is a show that needs a defining personality more than an earnest actress. Though Lorelei is a cartoon character, Ms. Sullivan sings "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" as if she really means it.
The show also needs some point of view in relation to the book about the adventures of two 1920's chorines and the men they attract on their trip to Paris. In fact, the book, for all its low jokes, is quite witty. There's no need to apologize for the way Lorelei eventually proves herself worthy of her dim-witted fiance, a button king at a time when buttons are being replaced by zippers. She's ahead of everybody.
There are laughs to be found in this book, though you wouldn't have known it from the audience reaction at the preview performance I attended. Titters, the occasional laugh, often silence.
Among the few good things in the show: Karen Prunzik, who can sing and dance, as Lorelei's good-hearted pal Dorothy; Allen Fitzpatrick, who plays the button king, and George Dvorsky, who has a fine voice, as Dorothy's suitor.
The choreography, like the costumes, is unimaginative and sometimes plain ugly, as in the show's Day-Glo number. There's another number that recalls the sort of thing done at Radio City Music Hall in the 1950's: the chorus members come out in tail coats that are black down one side and white down the other, thus to create a not very special effect when the dancers turn in something approximating unison.
The evening isn't completely lost. There are those Styne and Robin songs, the great ones you already know (including "Bye Bye Baby") as well as some that are equally good but are seldom heard these days: "Just a Kiss Apart," "It's Delightful Down in Chile" and the title song.
Another plus is that you aren't aware of any voice amplification or obvious miking, except to catch the tap-tap-taps of the dancers. The Lyceum is a comparatively small house. When a singer sings, you're hearing that singer's voice.
Otherwise, the rewards are slim.
A show's star should exceed its grasp, or what's a vehicle for? As gold digger nonpareil Lorelei Lee, Carol Channing advanced from ingenue to stardom on the opening night of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in December 1949; Marilyn Monroe brought an altogether different sensibility to the film version. The score boasts Jule Styne's propulsive music and Leo Robin's funny, sophisticated lyrics , with "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Bye Bye Baby" becoming standards. Nevertheless, Channing was the draw.
Now comes the Goodspeed Opera House revival, courtesy of Tony Randall's gasping National Actors Theater, which is presenting the Connecticut transfer as its sole offering of the season.
The production is instructive as an example of talent that can appear persuasive outside the theater district, but that withers in the Broadway spotlight. Energetic to the point of exhaustion, the show wears its every effort on its sleeve, and no element rises above the ordinary.
In the lead, cabaret star KT Sullivan embodies Brooks Atkinson's description of Channing as "a dazed automaton, husky enough to kick in the teeth of any gentleman onstage, but mincing coyly in high-heel shoes and looking out on a confused world through big, wide, starry eyes."
Automaton or not, however, Lorelei Lee also must exude an effortless, irresistible, sexual magnetism, which Sullivan does not. The vacancy is so overdone that it's impossible to affirm what that smitten button manufacturer Mr. Esmond (an affable Allen Fitzpatrick) sees in her.
An equally telling example of the shortcomings of Charles Repole's cloying production is the performance of Karen Prunzik as Lorelei Lee's protege, Dorothy Shaw. With a smile as wide as her legs are long, Prunzik is adorable, and she's given any number of showcases for her tapping. But except for a pleasant Charleston at the finale, Michael Lichtefeld's dances are graceless; the ensemble lacks the razor-sharp precision that is the Broadway standard; and none of Prunzik's applause-milking preening is warranted by the actual steps in her solos, which are routine.
Opening night at the Lyceum was a minor fiasco marked by mysterious tech delays, poor sound balance and constantly blown cues as painted drops bounced up and down in search of their proper placement. Eduardo Sicangco's scenery is a mixed bag, and some of it already looks beaten up. Ditto his costumes, some of which are smashing, though most of the ones for the star are unflattering.
The production isn't in the same league as other recent revivals; then again, neither is the show. And it's sheer euphemism to position this as a co-production of the Randall troupe; it's an import, pure and simple. National Actors Theater is on the ropes.