by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Critics On The Aisle
The melodic music and spirited lyrics of the multi-Tony-award-winning composer and lyricist of some of Broadway’s greatest hits, Jerry Herman, are the basis of “Jerry’s Girls,” a revue currently at The Ivoryton Playhouse.
The musical is a celebratory two-hour musical entertainment of glamour, optimism, love, melody, and memorable women characters of the musical theater.
More than most songwriters, Jerry Herman has put the ‘larger-than-life’ women of his shows center stage. There’s Dolly Gallagher Levi of “Hello, Dolly!” Auntie Marne Dennis of “Mame,” and female impersonator ZaZa of “La Cage Aux FoIles.”
“Jerry’s Girls” was originally presented as a nightclub act at Ted Hook’s Onstage in New York City in 1981. It was expanded into a full-scale revue after “La Cage aux FolIes” opened to rave reviews in 1984; Herman wanted to incorporate some of the hit songs from “La Cage” into his successful cabaret act.
The great showstoppers he picked are among the rousing closing numbers in “Jerry’s Girls:” “I Am What I Am” and “The Best Of Times.” They are the best examples of ensemble pieces in the show at Ivoryton.
Jerry Herman’s brilliant music in a revue format doesn’t always work well unless you have seen a fully mounted production of each show. The music and lyrics by themselves don’t reveal enough about the characters’ motivations as it relates to the plot. And these songs require as much acting skill as vocal talent, to put them over, especially the poignant ballads. As a result, they don’t elicit the powerful response from audiences they did in the original shows.
The title songs from “Marne,” “La Cage,” and “Hello Dolly,” are all closer to stand-alone tunes that are understood even if you don’t know the plot and characters of the respective shows.
And although many of his story-songs have lovely melodies, they need to be “set- up” so the audience and the performers understand the whys and wherefores of the emotions in each song.
Added to that observation of the show, many of his lesser-known songs were originally written for male characters, sung by male voices – or men vocalizing in drag.
Even Frank Rich of the New York Times, back in 1985, wondered, “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 … whatever the point of the all-female cast, one must still wonder why … “
We agree. The addition of one baritone to the cast of five women might have better served the women in this revue, by giving them some breathing space during the two-hour, thirty-song evening. (“Jerry’s Girls and a Guy” perhaps?)
The second half of a ballad, “I Won’t Send Roses,” when sung by Elizabeth Talbot, came off better than the first part, which was written to be sung by a male. Solo turns by MaryAnne Piccolo in “Where Ever He Ain’t” and “Look What Happened To Mabel” showcased her effectiveness as a comedic actress with a marvelous big voice. And when Julia Kiley and Mary Anne teamed up for the duet “Kiss Her Now” it proved to be a lovely moment of musical theater – and spotlighted Julia’s vocal talent.
On the lighter side, some of the comic tunes from “Mack and Mabel” are fun to watch. Amy D. Forbes’ old-time ‘song and dance’ routine to “Two A Day” and Jackie Sidle’s humorous “Put It Back On” (an homage to Fanny Brice) offered a snapshot of top vaudeville shows of so long ago.
Perhaps it is time for Jerry Herman to re-visit his expanded cabaret showcase to tighten and improve upon what was written as an au courant piece twenty-five years ago. It’s a delightfully tuneful show that could be much better with some of additional magic by its much-loved composer/lyricist.
A little polish never hurt a fine antique piece of furniture, and in the case of “Jerry’s Girls” – although not quite yet an antique – the shine has dulled just a bit with age, but it’s still a treasure
For tickets, call 860. 767-7318 or 860-767- 348 or online at www.ivorytonplayhouse.org. The show plays through November 15, 2009. 109 Main St., Ivoryton, CT