When you open with a show-stopper, what do you do for an encore? Another one, then another, and on and on until you may find yourself reeling a bit, or just plain numbed, after an hour of "Jerry's Girls," a glittering and extravagant cabaret entertainment that came to the St. James last night dolled up to look like a new Broadway musical.
In its own way, it is. Lavishily costumed, displayed against simple but stunning backgrounds, and handsomely lighted, it features three powerhouse performers - Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera and Leslie Uggams - singing three dozen of the songs which Jerry Herman has written for Broadway musicals over the past quater century.
They are catchy, melodious, sentimental and spirited songs. What they lack is wit, so broad humorous touches, mostly given to the hearty Loudon, have been applied to compensate for this.
Sometimes, as in "My Type," a number from Herman's revue past, this is successful. But in a Ku Klux Klan song about bigotry that was wisely dropped from "La Cage aux Folles" and unwisely resurrected here, it's anything but.
This listener thought he'd never have to hear "Hello, Dolly" or "Mame" again, and it's true that both numbers are made light of, even mocked, at their first appearance. But you can be sure they evolve into all-out sock choruses before the end.
While Loudon handles most of the comedy material, she is given the sole torch song, the pretty "Time Heals Everything," from "Mack and Mabel." Uggams is handed two of the composer's loveliest ballads, "If He Walked Into My Life" ("Mame") and "It Only Takes a Moment" ("Hello, Dolly"), in performances that mark the best I've ever heard from this singer.
But it is Chita Rivera, the only dancer of the three, who provides the evening with its greatest sparkle. Whether slinking and kicking her way through "Showtune" (an Off-Broadway piece that turned up late in "Mame" as the zippy "It's Today") or delivering with Piaflike energy the lovely Brel-type waltz "I Don't Want to Know" ("Dear World"), she's all fire.
In the closing medley from Herman's current Broadway hit, "La Cage aux Folles," each of the three gets her turn - Loudon with a meltingly sung "Song on the Sand," Uggams with a fervent account of "I Am What I Am," Rivera with the show's title number, and all three in the closing "The Best of Times."
Wayne Cilento has devised the nifty dance routines, and Larry Alford the sharp direction. The seemingly unending array of striking costumes are the almost unmistakable work of Florence Klotz. Tharon Musser has designed the flattering lighting for Hal Tine's spare, but eye-catching scenery, which includes a curving staircase put to proper use by the elegantly (and in one instance, comically inelegant) ladies.
"Jerry's Girls" has its inevitably dull moments, along with a few tasteless ones, but it is, on the whole, a breezy, invariably tuneful entertainment.
Here is an acid test. If you love Broadway, and more specifically the Broadway musical, you will adore Jerry's Girls, a wild and bounteous compilation of Jerry Herman show tunes, transformed into what is called, with meticulous accuracy, "a Broadway entertainment."
Starring the galactic threesome - par ordre alphabetique, as the chic French say - of Dorothy Loudon, Chita Rivera and Lesile Uggams, it opened at the St. James Theater last night.
So far as I am concerned it can stay there forever - at the very least.
It has no right to be so successful as a musical. It is not even a musical. It is based on a cabaret act - but a cabaret act transitioned, translated, transformed and made transcendent. Or translucent at the very least.
How this has been done, we will get to later. Just as we will get to the splendors of Miss Loudon, Miss Rivera, Miss Uggams and the rest of Jerry's girls.
First things first, and the first thing is Jerry Herman's music, and the second first thing are Jerry Herman's lyrics.
Herman, quite early in his career, discovered "the Broadway Sound." And he forthwith bottled it. And amplified it.
Many cities have a sound for music. It may be simple; for Paris it is a concertina, the husky shrug of a throat, and a psuedo-sexy sigh. Broadway - the city, not the street - is more complex. It is part the siren song of mermaids, part the no-less siren song of Merman, it is New York mixed with Berlin (part Irving and part Kurt Weill), it is a swoosh of trombones coming up from the footlights, it is the syncopation of a Yiddish song wirh a Harlem beat and a Jolson sob, it is a pulse in a spotlight. It is Broadway.
Jerry Herman is not the greatest songsmith Broadway has ever known - who is - but in modern times he has become the most typical, the archetypal, the most traditional.
His new tunes sound like old tumes, remembered with love, refashioned with fashion, and re-wrought with a kind of genious to please.
They awaken echoes rather than stir waves, but the echoes are as confident as a mountain yodel, and have the same evocative power of a sound exquisitely in context.
Enough of Herman already. What he has done here, helped by the smooth staging of Larry Alford and the absolutely apposite choreography of Wayne Cliento, is simply to present a sampler.
This is a retrospective. Almost all of the Herman herd of musicals are represented, with the odd but understandable exception of The Grand Tour.
Here are excerpts from Milk and Honey, Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Dear World, Mack and Mabel and La Cage aux Folles. It is quite a record to retrospect. And this nostalgia is ladled out with wit and even a certain acerbity.
Revealingly, those ubiquitous title tunes from Dolly and Mame are given a gently satiric treatment - these are clearly tunes Herman himself now almost hates to love - and even We Need a Little Christmas is performed by a bevy of sunbathing beauties on some Carribean shore sipping tall rum drinks.
The scenery by Hal Tin proves adroitly anonymous, often suggesting the original musicals but without quotation. That master seamstress, queen of Broadway's robes Florence Klotz, has surpassed herself with the costumes. Sometimes (obviously with Mame and Dolly) she follows the originals, but more often employing variations on themes.
The dexterity of the show, its sassy smartness is elegantly evidenced in its Cilento-Alford treatment of the title song from La Cage.
Here the collaborators were on treacherous territory, because the original was not simply in everyone's memory but actually still up the street in living flesh. The difference is clever, ironic, and most of all, workable.
Most of the show is pure joy. There is a "new" and naugty ethnic number from La Cage, dropped on the road, and sung here with relish by Miss Loudon, who has another song - new to me, and just as amusing - called My Type, in which a ramshackle, whiskey-logged saloon singer ponders that her turn for fame must eventually come, when her type comes in.
Miss Loudon scores all over the board. She not only clowns hilariously and memorably as a stripper more fat than fit and also as an acid-tongued Jeannette MacDonald, but also sings torch songs which glow like twilit embers.
Her co-stars are no less lunimous. Miss Uggams is regal and in superb voice, whether joined by Kristen Childs for a lovely rendering of Kiss Her Now, from Dear World, or knocking the stage in with a definitive (if only because it redefines) I Am What I Am, from La Cage.
And Miss Rivera completes the triumphant triumvirate with terrific guts, gusto and style. Cilento has chreographed for her with sweet sensibility, and as a dancer she has rarely looked better, while her singing has just that specific Broadway rasp so dear to Heman's world.
Disappointments or mistakes? I could perhaps have done withput the Tea Party sequence from Dear World, surely meaningless to people who have not seen either the show or the Giradoux play on which it was based.
This seemed to be included, perhaps self-indulgently, to demonstrate how smart Herman really is, both as a composer and, particularly, in the area in which he is most underated, lyricist, Still, he's entitled.
And then, there are the ghosts. Such shows always carry with them memories of performers past. Here the indelible ghosts surprisingly seemed not those of Carol Channing in Dolly, or Angela Lansbury in Mame, but - so sad - Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in Mack and Mable, two unforgettable performances in a musical that was never given a fair or proper chance.
But what are ghosts on a joyful night like this? Merely friendly familiars spectrally visiting the scene of a party thrown to remember the best of times in the best of company, among whom I emphatically include Herman's handpicked ensemble of eight consistently adding their own youthful luster to a shining firmament.
Yes, as I say, the show is an acid test. Bring along your litmus paper.
In shows dating from his biggest hit, ''Hello, Dolly!'' (1964), to his latest one, ''La Cage aux Folles'' (1983), the songwriter Jerry Herman has stood up proudly and often effectively for the tuneful, extravagant, unabashedly old-fashioned Broadway musical. But not this year. At ''Jerry's Girls,'' the new Broadway ''entertainment'' purporting to pay tribute to its namesake's song catalogue, one is less likely to recall the high spirits of ''Dolly'' or the opulence of ''Mame'' than the screechiness and tackiness of such latter-day Broadway revues as ''Leader of the Pack'' and ''Peg.'' The only thing that ''Jerry's Girls'' has in common with a bona fide Jerry Herman musical is that it occupies the St. James, the theater where Dolly once promised she'd never go away again.
Well, the old girl has certainly gone away now - and who can blame her? When the time comes to hear ''Hello, Dolly!'' in ''Jerry's Girls,'' the evening's stars (Chita Rivera, Dorothy Loudon, Leslie Uggams) variously declare ''I hate this song!'' or sing it with new lyrics concocted for the promotion of Oscar Mayer wieners (''Hello, Deli!''). Dolly's old runway is also gone, and, in place of the grand Harmonia Gardens staircase, we find some white plastic steps suitable for a sunken suburban shopping mall. There are no singing waiters, either: The ''concept'' of ''Jerry's Girls'' (attributed to three men, including Mr. Herman) is that only women (three stars, eight windup chorus performers, one pianist) can be found on stage.
This gimmick is not the least of the evening's pitfalls, although it does prompt some eccentric interludes that one won't quickly forget. ''I Won't Send Roses,'' a gorgeous Robert Preston-Bernadette Peters ballad from ''Mack and Mabel,'' is performed here by Miss Uggams alone, successively impersonating a man and woman, even as she addresses the lyric to an unidentified rag doll sitting on what looks like an office swivel chair. The title song of ''La Cage aux Folles'' has been similarly rethought: ''Jerry's Girls'' may be one's first and last chance to see this number performed by female disco dancers in male drag.
Be assured that feminism has nothing to do with the casting of ''Jerry's Girls.'' As costumed by the usually reliable Florence Klotz and as bewigged by Phyllis Della, the performers are often dressed as unflatteringly as possible. When the women wear less, the intentions seem even more ambivalent. It's typical of the show's view of women (and level of taste) that the ostensible comic high point of a vaudeville medley occurs when Miss Loudon appears at length in a stripper's outfit, complete with tassels, designed to ridicule her semi-exposed flesh. There is also a sequence, set to the song ''We Need a Little Christmas,'' in which the chorus poses briefly in swimsuits. Bathing suits at Christmas, you ask? Do pardon me for revealing the evening's wittiest sight gag.
Whatever the point of the all-female cast, one must still wonder why the show's particular female stars were chosen. None of them have been associated with Mr. Herman's musicals. Only one (Miss Uggams) is primarily a singer. All three have strident mannerisms that the director, Larry Alford, takes sadistic glee in calling to our attention.
Forever popping her eyes and slurring words and notes, Miss Loudon has the forced gaiety of a party guest who is trying to forget that someone has just accidentally spilled a plate of food all over her dress. Her comic skills cannot salvage a misfired satirical ditty composed of ethnic slurs (mercifully cut from ''La Cage''), and she mutilates two of Mr. Herman's loveliest ballads (''Time Heals Everything,'' ''Song on the Sand'') when attempting to sing them in all too deadly earnest. Miss Uggams, whose voice increasingly swings from a whisper to a harsh belt without humane warning, does decently by ''If He Walked Into My Life,'' but is also patronizingly exploited as the show's all-purpose minority member (she sings two Jewish-flavored songs and ''I Am What I Am''). Only in a 40's boogie-woogie treatment of ''That's How Young I Feel'' is Miss Rivera given steps worthy of her distinctive style and unflagging energy.
The choreographer, Wayne Cilento, has made scant attempt to pay tribute to the great Gower Champion dance routines most associated with Mr. Herman's musicals. The occasional watered-down references to Bob Fosse aside, this is dancing to remember television's old ''Hullabaloo'' by. Similarly, the shrilly amplified orchestrations coarsen those that Philip J. Lang once wrote for Mr. Herman's music; the emaciated scenic design, by Hal Tine, empties the stage as assiduously as it might be filled by Oliver Smith's glorious sets for ''Dolly'' or David Mitchell's for ''La Cage.'' If ''Jerry's Girls'' really is ''The Best of Times,'' as its aggressive clap-along finale asserts it to be, it's hard to imagine what, short of a sequel, would constitute the worst.