This show should have been a musical comedy queen’s wet dream: some of the greatest songs ever written, show tunes both familiar and novel, sung by an amazing group of women. For the most part, the show lived up to expectations, but with so much fine talent and material to draw on, it’s not unreasonable to expect a bit more.
From arranger David Lohman’s witty use of “Beautiful Girls” from Follies as the opening of the overture, this was a sophisticated entertainment that feted talents from Ethel Merman and Mary Martin to Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing, from Barbara Cook and Elaine Stritch to Julie Andrews and Barbara Streisand, from Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters to Chita Rivera and Liza Minnelli, from Betty Buckley to Audra McDonald and Heather Headley.
Then why did I leave even the slightest bit dissatisfied? Because director Perrin Post and Lohman were just too enthusiastic. I kept wishing they would both just take a Valium and get out of the way of their remarkable performers. The Ordway’s production is the third incarnation of this show (which I saw in its first production at the Loring Playhouse in 2004) and it’s the tightest one yet, which is a real plus. But it’s also overproduced, overdirected, and overarranged, to the detriment of the performers.
When scoring for the ensemble, arranger Lohman can be revelatory. For instance, the arrangement of “Sunday,” from Sunday in the Park with George, nicely exposed the intricacies of Sondheim’s harmonies. But Lohman frequently fusses too much. For example, Holly Schroeder was out-Stritching Elaine Stritch in “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. So why did Lohman have to bring in all the other women and undercut the last verse’s wonderful sense of self-mockery?
Director Post seemed unable to get out of her singers’ way as well. Too often, she had her singers flying about the stage unnecessarily, and her exaggerated blocking of “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide did nothing to help Kathleen Bloom’s valiant attempt at the coloratura.
When she let her performers just stop and sing—as she did with Jody Briskey’s rendition of “Meadowlark” from The Baker’s Wife—the result set the heart flying. But all too often the directorial choices were rather odd. For instance, why, when “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was intended to celebrate Carol Channing, did the performance recreate Marilyn Monroe’s performance from the movie?
Post, who conceived and directed the show, has written a witty commentary, introducing each of the women being feted. It’s ironic, though, that when she tells us things that most everybody knows about, say, Julie Andrews, she doesn’t bother to set up even the most obscure of the songs. If someone didn’t know the show She Loves Me, they wouldn’t have a clue what was going on in the song “Vanilla Ice Cream” (though Ann Michaels sang it splendidly, all the way to the high B).
Mimicry is a unique talent; impersonation rather than interpretation. And there were some performances, like Jen Burleigh-Bentz’ channeling Ethel Merman in “The Hostess with the Mostes’ on the Ball” from Call Me Madam, or Michelle Carter doing Chita Rivera in “Where You Are” from Kiss of the Spiderwoman, that were spot on. But for the most part, the singers wisely opted for putting their own personal spins on the material.
Many elements of the show that struck me as odd were matters of personal preference. I didn’t think “And I Was Beautiful” was the best song to represent Angela Landsbury in Dear World. And many songs were overly truncated to keep the show to a reasonable performing length. I would rather have had fewer songs, sung completely. What I wouldn’t give to hear Holly Schroeder sing all the bitchy verses of Noel Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away.
Misgivings aside, the performance was a catalog of successes:
• Briskey was almost indistinguishable from Norma Desmond when she sang “With One Look” from Sunset Boulevard. Someone should mount a production of it for this woman.
• Likewise, Michaels nailed the ubiquitous “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” making the song uniquely her own.
• Burleigh-Bentz was heartbreaking in “Your Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime.
• Carter captured the innocence and charming naiveté of Mary Martin, singing “Neverland” from Peter Pan.
• Schroeder, an expert belter, demonstrated that she also knows her way around a ballad with a touching “Quiet Thing” from Liza Minnelli’s breakthrough, Flora, the Red Menace.
• And Bloom proved that “Le Jazz Hot” from Victor, Victoria was a real jazz number, not just a drag novelty.
This is not a perfect production. Would I have made other choices about repertoire or performance? Obviously. And so, likely, would everyone else in the audience. But this is a company that takes this great music very seriously. And there are more than enough wonderful performances that override any other concerns.
Broadway’s Legendary Ladies continues at the Ordway Center through Oct. 26.