By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, May 16, 2018
In the 1980s, the landscape for Broadway musicals was bleak. As the decade wore on, American musicals were fewer and fewer in number, to the point where, in a number of seasons, there weren’t enough new musicals to fill out the nominations in many of the Tony Award categories. Filling the void was a wave of new shows that had been hits in London — the so-called British Invasion — which, for good or for ill, gave us Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables.
As scarce as new musicals were in the ‘80s, there was a subcategory that was even scarcer, to the point of being virtually nonexistent: musical comedies. Say what you want about the British blockbusters, they were hardly a barrel of laughs.
Which might partly explain why another 1980s London import, Me and My Girl, was greeted with such enthusiasm on Broadway. Me and My Girl was a significantly rewritten version of a British hit from the 1930s that had not previously played Broadway. The score was by the late songwriter Noel Gay, and the new libretto was by famed British wit and revered performer Stephen Fry, with contributions by the revival’s director, Mike Ockrent. The rewritten version of the show had been a huge hit in London, and the Broadway production ran for 1,420 performances.
I saw Me and My Girl in London in 1986. It was my first time in London, and it was my first-ever London show, so my excitement level was pretty much off the charts. I recall the experience vividly, as I hadn’t gotten any sleep on the flight over, and had been awake for over 48 hours.
So, I was a little light-headed and woozy, but I recall having a grand old time, especially when the cast came out into the audience for the act one finale, “The Lambeth Walk.” I was sitting on the aisle, and Su Pollard, who was playing Sally, came up to me and gave me a big sloppy kiss on the cheek. Then Enn Reitel, who was playing Bill Snibson, grabbed me by the chin and remarked, “Aw, will you look at that. You’re scarred for life.”
All of this is by way of prologue to the Encores! at City Center production of Me and My Girl, the first significant New York City production of the show since its original Broadway run. As I said, Broadway had been starved for musical comedy in the 1980s. And I was in a slightly altered state of consciousness when I saw the show in London. So perhaps neither of us was in the best position to judge the objective merits of the show qua show.
The story of Me and My Girl features a clash of the high-born and the low-. Cockney ne’er-do-well Bill Snibson discovers that he’s the long-lost heir to the Earldom of Hereford, and the fish-out-of-water comedy flows from that premise.
Oh, Me and My Girl is certainly fun while it lasts. Stephen Fry engages in some delicious wordplay in his revised script. The characters are pretty endearing, especially Bill and Sally, the Cockney couple at the center of the show. And Noel Gay seems to have had great facility with sprightly, infectious tunes.
It’s just that it all doesn’t hang together particularly well. While some of the songs are charming, they don’t really add a lot to the story, which was fairly typical of musical theater songs of the 1930s. The current script features seven interpolations from the larger Noel Gay songbook, which adds to the generic feel of the score. It got to the point where I couldn’t tell new songs from reprises from originals from interpolations. It all just became a solid block of sprightliness.
The underwhelming nature of the Encores! Me and My Girl may also be a result of the flaccid direction and choreography by Warren Carlyle. Carlyle is generally fairly reliable, but here his efforts feel under-energized and the show under-rehearsed. A good portion of the numbers that I recall being transported by in London just kinda sat there at City Center, particularly the title number, usually a charming tap duet for Bill and his titular girl, Sally.
The only number in the Encores! production that rose above the serviceable was the act two opening, “The Sun Has Got His Hat On,” an otherwise superfluous trifle rendered delightful here by Carlyle’s tap choreography. However, it seems as though Carlyle spent so much time on this number that he didn’t have time to make the other dances work.
The “Hat On” number is also aided immeasurably by the presence of Mark Evans as Gerald Bolingbroke. Evans cuts a rather dashing profile, as he does currently on Broadway in the replacement cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. Evans was also indelibly charming as Og in the Irish Rep’s recent Finian’s Rainbow revival, practically stealing the show out from underneath Ryan Silverman and Melissa Errico as Woody and Sharon, respectively.
The rest of the Me and My Girl cast is fairly strong, including Christian Borle as Bill, although Borle felt fairly tentative, and seemed like he could have used more help from Carlyle in setting some comic stage business. Laura Michelle Kelly didn’t really seem up for the comic aspects of Sally, but she managed a very touching rendition of the show’s main ballad, “Once You Lose Your Heart.”
Lisa O’Hare as Lady Jacqueline is every bit as sharp and sparkling as she was in A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder. And Tony winners Harriet Harris as the Duchess of Dene and Chuck Cooper as Sir John give the show a much needed sense of comedic confidence.
Will we see Me and My Girl back on the Main Stem any time soon? Perhaps, but it would appear that Mr. Carlyle might not be the man for the job. With a director who has a much firmer hand with comedy (John Rando? Casey Nicholaw? Jack O’Brien?), it’s possible Me and My Girl could delight audiences the way it did in the 1980s. I suppose it couldn’t hurt if everyone stayed awake for 48 hours beforehand…
Me and My Girl presented by New York City Center Encores! at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, May 9-13, 2018. Book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber; book revised by Stephen Fry, with contributions by Mike Ockrent; music by Noel Gay . Encores! Artistic Director Jack Viertel; Encores! Music Director Rob Berman; Directed and Choreographed by Warren Carlyle.
Cast: Christian Borle, Bill Buell, Chuck Cooper, Suzzanne Douglas, Mark Evans, Harriet Harris, John Horton, Simon Jones, Laura Michelle Kelly, Lisa O’Hare, Don Stephenson; with Alex Aquilino, Maddy Apple, Philip Attmore, Florrie Bagel, Sam Bolen, Abby Church, Jake Corcoran, Christine DiGiallonardo, Ta’Nika Gibson, Jordan Grubb, Brittany Rose Hammond, Lizzie Klemperer, Eloise Kropp, TimothyMcDevitt, David Scott Purdy, Mariah Reshea Reives, Price Waldman, Jessica Wockenfuss, Chaz Wolcott, and Kevin Worley.
Cover: Christian Borle with Harriet Harris (above) and the company of ‘Me and My Girl’ at New York City Center; photo: Joan Marcus.