Sid Caesar’s knack for “doubletalk” – speaking gibberish that sounds like a foreign language, or even an imaginary one – was perhaps his most brilliant gift. By having Caesar portray seven different characters, the musical “Little Me” exploited these linguistic acrobats to their fullest in 1962.
Lacking a comic of Caesar’s uncanny skills – or Robin Williams’ availability – the producers of the first revival of “Little Me” in 1982 divided up his roles between James Coco and Victor Garber, destroying the show’s principal conceit.
Now, 36 years post-Caesar, the producers of the second revival – which opened last night at the Roundabout Theater – have had to make do with Martin Short undertaking all the roles, plus an additional one.
“Make do with Martin Short?” you ask indignantly! Indeed, Short is an adorable and talented performer who brings at least a few of the doomed husbands he portrays endearingly to life.
But as he stumbles over the French accent of the Chevalier-esque nightclub singer Val du Val, and then slurs his way through the German spiel of the von Stroheim-like film director Otto Schnitzler. Short makes you yearn for Caesar’s salad of vocal impersonations.
“Little Me” is based on a Patrick Dennis (of “Auntie Mame” fame) novel of the same name, which posed as a memoir by one Belle Poitrine – the “great star of the stage, screen and television.” The faux autobiography was a zany sendup of celebrity best sellers.
Belle is a backwoods girl from the wrong side of the tracks whose mother claims to be a nurse working at the “Red Light [pause] Clinic,” and who trains her daughter to do “chest exercises.” The buxom Belle rises to the top, so to speak, by burying a series of increasingly rich and eccentric husbands.
When Neil Simon was approached to adapt the novel for the stage, he had the brainstorm of having the versatile Caesar play all the husbands, transforming the show into a star vehicle. Ultimately, the show is nothing more than a collection of the vaudeville sketches Simon was accustomed to fashioning for Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” on TV.
Belle’s flashback tale begins when she instantly falls in love with Noble Eggleston, a blue-blooded, spoiled brat who graduates from both Harvard and Yale, becoming a doctor and a lawyer. Though Noble is equally smitten with Belle, he tells her, “I have feelings for you that I couldn’t have for a nice girl,” and “You belong here, Belle – just not in the house.”
The inane story, such as it is, follows Belle as she tries to improve her lot and become worthy of Noble’s hand, setting her on a career as a kind of unwitting black widow. As it approaches its finale, the scenario seems to have at least 10 endings that pile up, even as they cancel each other out.
Despite such vagaries in plotting, the reliable musical performer Faith Prince has found a congenial role for her comedic bent and, for the most part, she does well by Belle.
But even if Prince has a genuine, Broadway belter’s voice, the booming, onstage orchestra drowns her out so often, we frequently can’t hear Carolyn Leigh’s delectable lyrics – even those we already thought we knew.
Though Martin Short winks his way through some of his parts, he’s best as the bespectacled, nebbishy Fred Poitrine, a WWI doughboy who is the spitting image of Barbra Streisand’s “Private Schwartz from Rockaway” in the stage version of “Funny Girl.”
The large ensemble has the kind of spirit one looks for in a musical, and both Ruth Williamson – a living caricature – and Brooks Ashmanskas stand out in various secondary roles.
At first, the real star of the current Roundabout version is the staging by director-choreographer Rob Marshall. The inventive dancing pays apt homage to Bob Fosse – the show’s original choreographer – before taking off in its own imaginative directions. By the end, however, it becomes too much of a good thing – like icing on an insubstantial dessert.
Though Neil Simon has loaded his revised script with some new gags, the best reason for attending any revival of “Little Me” will always be its rousing score by Cy Coleman.
Even if you don’t instantly recognize their titles, I promise you will recognize the melodies to “I’ve Got Your Number,” “Real Live Girl,” “Here’s to Us” and several others. It’s a wonderful collection of infectious songs that leaves you feeling happier than anyone has a right to be.
The reality about "Little Me" was always that it was more of a performance with music than a musical. Neil Simon's book, based on a spoof novel by Patrick Dennis, has some good jokes; Cy Coleman's music carries a couple of standards into the lists; and Carolyn Leigh's lyrics are perfectly deft, daft and suitable.
But when "Little Me" first hit Broadway in 1962, it was a showcase for the unique talents of the great Sid Caesar. So no one need pretend to be surprised that this new staging, directed and choreographed by Rob Marshall, opening last night at the Roundabout Theater, is fundamentally a showcase for the unique talents of the great Martin Short, not quite forgetting his co-star, Faith Prince.
Short enters as the youthful Noble Eggleston - the impossible hero of the impossible heroine, that star of stage and screen Belle Poitrine's tell-all autobiography, itself the ostensible and cheerfully impossible story of "Little Me" - turning cartwheels.
And, metaphorically, Short continues to turn cartwheels all evening.
On the musical's third Broadway outing - there was a less-than-exultant revival in 1982 when Caesar's multi-part was mistakenly delegated to two actors, James Coco and Victor Garber - Simon seems to have titivated up some of the jokes and, I may be mistaken here, appears to have trimmed and somewhat straightened out the narrative of this rockiest of romances.
And although this is not one of Coleman's very best scores, all his musicals exude floor-thumping Broadway confidence and a brash yet elegant tunefulness which can never go out of its ageless style. The present production, by the way, sensibly excises the two songs added in 1982 and restores those removed, so we are now virtually back to the original Caesar version.
Marshall, here in total command of a major musical for the first time, has allied himself to his inventive designer, David Gallo, and uses the comparatively small Roundabout main stage to masterly effect.
Taking Gallo's chic permanent framework as a basis and rushing some scenes on and off with a turntable while also using the back of the stage to load and unload other scenes, Marshall keeps the show moving at a pace not even matched by directors Cy Feuer and Bob Fosse in the original.
Marshall's choreography pays tribute to Fosse right at the opening of Fosse's classic "Rich Kids Rag," then breaks away into his own much-less-regimented style, although always maintaining a touch of Fosse on the back burner.
Where the old Fosse was sadly missed was in the joke striptease, male-seduction dance, "I've Got Your Number," in which Swen Swenson regularly stopped the show. The Marshall inevitably imitative replacement lacks wit, taste and savor.
Whatever the staging - including Ann Hould-Ward's generally attractive costumes, often using black and white, and Kenneth Posner's imaginative lighting - "Little Me," like Coleman's later show for Jim Dale, "Barnum," is a machine-tooled vehicle for performance, and the performer here never runs Short.
Short is one of those quintessential clowns who moves subtly but carries a big shtick. Here he plays eight roles (Caesar did only seven, but he had no one to beat) with dazzling grace. Whether he's a blue blood, a skinflint, a warbling French cabaret singer with a vibrato wide enough to bridge the Seine, a decayed monarch on his penultimate legs or a Teutonic Hollywood director with a taste for daggers, Short exuberantly embraces them all.
And, like Caesar before him, he is at his best as the nerdy, needy, myopic doughboy in World War I, singing - and he has a surprisingly good voice - the joys of a "Real Live Girl."
So, how about the supporting cast, the little them? Well, although Faith Prince, unlike her predecessors, reasonably enough combines both leading female roles, she still seems strangely subdued, possibly unhappy in the unusually ugly, even unfunny, dresses she has been given. This is not our adored Prince's finest hour, for after a spirited opening, she appears to abdicate.
The rest of the cast hop, skip and jump through their energetic repertory of roles with endearing Olympic gusto, with Michael McGrath, Peter Benson and an acceptably over-the-top Ruth Williamson always to the fore, although Michael Park as Lucky (he used to be called George, but his name has been changed for a gag line) missed something in charm.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. As in 1962, what we have here is a B-plus musical in an A-minus staging, enshrining an A-plus performance. A winning grade, yes, but note carefully what you're getting.
The fellow simply refuses to die. He's been down for the count any number of times already. The doctor at his side, monitoring his pulse, can tell you that, as can all those loyal subjects keening at the foot of his bed.
But Prince Cherney, the gnarled, one-eyed monarch of a handkerchief-sized European country, keeps popping back up, tossing off the sheet used to cover his face, a song in his throat and his eyes afire with vitality. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but the prospect of sticking around for an endless series of curtain calls is even sweeter.
Yes, in the midst of death we are truly in life, or at least Martin Short is. Ecstatically embodying eight different souls in the Roundabout Theater Company's revival of "Little Me," Short must perish repeatedly before the evening's end: by pistol, by poison, by drowning and from digital injuries sustained during a typing accident.
This actor, however, keeps reincarnating himself with such improbable reserves of energy and powers of impersonation that it's a little scary. If he weren't so overwhelmingly enjoyable, you might consider using a wooden stake on him.
"Little Me," the 1962 musical with a book by Neil Simon and songs by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, was originally written for the great television comic Sid Caesar. Its chain of burlesque-style vignettes, designed as a showcase for its versatile leading man, might have come from vintage episodes of "Your Show of Shows," a television series for which the young Simon, incidentally, was a writer.
On the page, these scenes read as hokey, crass and seriously funny reworkings of classic Borscht Belt shtick. What Short does with them, in the gravely imbalanced production that opened last night under Rob Marshall's direction, becomes a testament to the forces of will, instinct and incandescence that make a star. And not just any old kind of star, but a star of the stage. Though Short is best known for his work on television and in films, the stage loves him the way the camera loved Garbo.
When he's "on" (and when isn't he?) during a performance, he gives off a heat that, at least temporarily, chases away the mortal chills and worries of everyday life. Broadway used to be built around such personalities: the Bert Lahrs and Ethel Mermans and Gertrude Lawrences. Nowadays, with the human factor eclipsed by technological spectacles created by corporate committee, such figures are rare. When they surface, it's most likely to be in a one-person vehicle like John Leguizamo's "Freak."
So let us now praise the Roundabout for putting Short, whose sole previous Broadway outing was in the disastrous "Goodbye Girl" five years ago, where he does indeed belong, back on the stage, and in a role that doesn't shortchange his vast talents.
There is one little problem about "Little Me," however, and that is that Short is essentially the only thing in it, a life force surrounded by dead air. You get the feeling that you're watching a virtuoso high-wire act performed above a soggy field of a show. And even Short can't totally distract your attention from the bog beneath him.
That bog claims some heartbreaking casualties. Chief among them is Faith Prince, the heavenly Miss Adelaide of the fine Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls," who is sorely misused in the pivotal role of Belle Poitrine, an all-American femme fatale. Coleman's frisky, melodious score is somehow transformed from likable airiness into something leaden. And as staged by Marshall, a co-director of the hit revival of "Cabaret," the extensive dance numbers register as perfunctory pastiche, like the theme choreography of television variety shows in the 1960s.
"Little Me," it seems, is a musical that just can't get an even break. Its original production, though fondly remembered by many theatergoers, received mixed reviews and was only a modest hit, closing after 256 performances. It was retooled, with extensive rewriting by Simon, 20 years later for a run of a mere 36 performances. In that version, the seven parts played by Caesar were divided between two actors, James Coco and Victor Garber. Most critics agreed that this revision robbed the show of its central comic engine.
No one can accuse this "Little Me" of lacking a center, given the involvement of Short, who has even taken on an additional, eighth role. Another consolidation of parts is less felicitous, however. In previous productions of "Little Me," which was adapted from Patrick Dennis' novel, Belle, who narrates the story of her rise from rustic poverty to mink-lined fame and fortune, was portrayed by two actresses.
There was the older, worldly Belle, who clearly was at least partly making up her past as she described it, and her younger self, a passive creature of unlikely innocence. The title "Little Me" is ironic, a gibe at all those celebrity memoirs in which the author modestly insists that success was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
The girl remembered by the older woman is essentially a variation on the voluptuous naughty nurses of vaudeville routines, a pair of humongous breasts on legs. The young Belle Poitrine is little more than a punch line in a ribald joke.
Ms. Prince is a performer of lovely comic instincts, but she has always exploited them in the name of character, not shtick, and here she doesn't have a character to play. Unflatteringly bewigged and costumed (by Ann Hould-Ward) in outfits that accent her cleavage like a bull's-eye, she often seems ill at ease and even slightly embarrassed. When a scene allows her to do a bit of old movie-style parody, as when she evokes Joan Crawford in her sacrificial mother mode, you can sense her relief at having something to hold on to.
Mostly, she's forced to rely on complicitous, "can you believe this?" glances to keep the audience on her side. What's more, in her songs, she is bizarrely sabotaged by the production's sound system and sight gags. You can't even make out the lyrics of her opening number. And though she appealingly delivers the wry "Poor Little Hollywood Star," marking a new chapter in Belle's life in the second act, she is undercut by the busy array of jokey movie posters projected around her.
The talented David Gallo ("Jackie," "Bunny Bunny") is the set designer here, but for once his inventiveness fails him. "Little Me" looks expensive with its flashy rotating scenery evoking everything from hayseed squalor to the front lines of World War I. But the visual jokes, which include an homage to the movie "Titanic," usually feel strained and predictable.
In the same vein, Marshall's choreography never surprises. It is dutifully vigorous, but what wit it has feels cheap. The brassy seduction song, "I've Got Your Number," performed as a striptease by Michael Park, has the leaden eroticism of a late-night turn at Chippendale's. And it was definitely a mistake to introduce an arch Fosse-style routine for a courtroom scene. (Belle, shades of "Chicago," becomes famous when she is tried for murder.) Bob Fosse was the original choreographer of "Little Me," and it's better not to remind audiences of what they're missing.
Such winning quick-sketch talents as Michael McGrath, Ruth Williamson and Christine Pedi are largely wasted. McGrath does some nifty, bantering teamwork with Short as half of a team of vaudeville booking agents, and Ms. Williamson, portraying a pair of monster mothers, at least has a specific comic presence. For the most part, however, the supporting cast, like Ms. Prince, seems to be treading water.
That leaves us with Short, and mercifully, that leaves us with a lot. He is the ideal purveyor of the kind of hefty, silly jokes that Simon dishes out here, and is the only member of the cast who can fill them with the helium they need.
Watch him as an insufferably perfect rich boy, glazed with the knowledge of his own wealth and virtue, sniffing the air of the young Belle's trashy neighborhood and saying: "Smells like poverty. Someone must have left it out overnight." (The line is new to the script, and unlike the jokes Simon has added about Belle's chest size, the ones for Short's characters are mostly winners.)
Listen to how this actor, who has a sweet and solid singing voice, grows in charm and poignancy during the number "Real Live Girl," selling the song without shedding the ridiculous nerdiness of the myopic doughboy he is playing at that moment. When, as a miserly, geriatric millionaire in a wheelchair, he emerges from aged stiffness into vicious vitality, it's like watching a personality being born.
Whether playing a Maurice Chevalier-like music hall star or a Teutonic tyrant of a movie director, Short's zestful performer's glee, equal parts ego and generosity, turns cutout cartoons into portraits of Dickensian robustness. This single blaze of light in a disappointingly dreary production is enough to justify the ticket price for "Little Me."
By the way, the evening's most ingenious sight gags involve making it seem as if Short were in two places at the same time. The current of this actor's show-biz electricity runs so strong, I wasn't at all sure that these moments were merely illusions.
The third time is probably not the charm for "Little Me," the 1962 tuner that was a slow fizzle in its Broadway debut and a quick flop in a major revival 20 years later. It can perhaps now be agreed that this spoof of celebrity tell-alls will never make a great musical, but it can add up to a pretty lively variety show, and in the new Roundabout Theater Co. production starring Martin Short and Faith Prince, it's in good hands.
The musical didn't come by its variety-show aesthetic by happenstance. It was tailored -- not to say strait-jacketed -- to the talents of comic Sid Caesar, star of "Your Show of Shows," the Ur-TV variety show that also provided an early gig for its book writer, Neil Simon. Adapted from Patrick Dennis' faux autobiography of a golddigger with the delicious name of Belle Poitrine, the show nearly relegated poor Belle to the role of narrator, allowing the various men in her life, all played by Caesar in the original production and by Short here, to take center stage.
And so while we are ostensibly following the fortunes of white-trash Southern girl Belle Schlumpfert as she weathers many a hardship on her way to fame and fortune and a house in the Hamptons, it's always the men who give her a leg up -- the dippy rich boy Noble Eggleston, her one true love; the miserly Amos Pinchley, whose lockbox heart she melts; the dim serviceman Fred, who gives Belle her Poitrine -- who get the yocks. The show's title turns out to be all too apt; poor Belle ends up being a supporting player in her own life.
Simon was clearly still in gag-writer mode when he penned the book, which is really just a series of broad comic sketches strung together with wispy bits of plot; any hopes of sharp satire or committed characterization aren't realized, as jokes aimed straight at the audience come fast and thick. And so without a powerhouse purveyor of shtick in the Caesar roles, "Little Me" would be more than a little lost. (Indeed it apparently was in the '82 revival, in which the Caesar roles were divided between Victor Garber and James Coco, both fine actors, but neither a comic of genius. It ran a mere 36 performances.)
Here it's the loopy Short whose tiny frame must carry most of the show's weight, and he does it with a genial finesse. He makes his entrance, as the simpy spoiled rich kid Noble, in mid-cartwheel, and throughout uses his wiry, diminutive stature to amusing effect. Short is a specialist at geeky, effete and foreign types, and there's a little of each in most of his characterizations here (the best being the French crooner Val du Val, replete with an authentic Piaf vibrato).
If Short is always standing half outside the characters, filtering them through his own comic persona, that's not inappropriate for a show that always gives a joke precedence over storytelling. Short knows what his strengths are, and serves them up with delirious delight.
While he is clearly having a high old time, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for his co-star, the terrifically talented Prince. If Short is a performer who's given a lot to perform, Prince is an actress given almost nothing to act. She's playing Belle both young and old, roles split between two actresses in prior productions, but in Simon's book they both add up to only about half an Auntie Mame.
It's a measure of her abilities that the few morsels of wit she's given do linger in the mind, as when she introduces her memoirs, after which the show is named, by cracking coyly, "The 'little' just came to me." Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's songs provide her with her most persuasive moments; she makes each one count. At other times, when she's addressing the audience directly with narration as thin on comic material as Short's shtick is thick with it, Prince just looks uncomfortable, something one never hoped to see from such a winning stage talent.
Coleman and Leigh's score is beloved by musical buffs, which is another way of saying it deserves a better vehicle. The musical's lopsidedness is most strangely illustrated by the song "I've Got Your Number," a catchy swinging-'60s groove performed by the sexy Michael Parks, playing a sometime paramour of Belle's inaptly named Lucky. Lucky may have a number, but he's got no role; it seems to have been abandoned in New Haven while his song made it to New York without him.
If director-choreographer Rob Marshall doesn't manage to make a whole of the show's scattershot elements, despite some rejiggering that finds the title tune at the top of the evening (with a dire sound mix that muddies Leigh's lyrics), he has more winningly embraced its cartoonish tongue-in-cheek style and dolled it up in a'60s-'70s variety show aesthetic.
He provides a cute sendup of "Chicago" in a trial sequence that functions both as a wink at that show's popularity and a nod to "Little Me's" original choreographer, Bob Fosse, from whose work much of Marshall's own here clearly derives. Amusingly (or dismayingly, depending on your affection for today's postmodern Nick at Nite aesthetic), the chorus moves, looks and acts like the corps from "The Carol Burnett Show" or "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour"; you half expect to see Teri Garr or Vicki Lawrence popping in.
Ingenious set designer David Gallo provides a blank white background that also recalls the TV studio, as well as a few delightful sight gags as witty as anything in the book: a visual pun involving railroad tracks and a daffy prison gag starring Belle's ample poitrine. But like most of "Little Me," these witty little adornments must be savored for their own sake alone. There's plenty of fun to be had, but the party that is "Little Me" still feels a little aimless.