“Neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams, nor Miss Ethel Merman, resembles any other person alive or dead.” So theatergoers who saw “Call Me Madam” when it opened on Broadway in 1950 were warned in the Playbill.
With the first half of that warning, the show’s producers might have been angling to forestall legal action from Perle Mesta, the Washington “hostess” whom President Truman appointed ambassador to Luxembourg in 1949. In “Call Me Madam,” Sally Adams, introduced in song as “The Hostess With the Mostes’ on the Ball,” is named ambassador to a country called Lichtenburg — and proceeds to make a mess of it.
The other half of the alert, though, was simply a statement of fact. Merman’s clarion voice, brusque style and ha-cha-cha exuberance made her musical theater’s indispensable star for decades. But it also made most of the vehicles tailored to her gifts difficult fits for anyone else.
That at any rate is the impression left by the pulse-lowering Encores! production of “Call Me Madam” that opened on Wednesday at City Center, directed by Casey Hushion and starring Carmen Cusack in the Merman role. Ms. Cusack, a strong performer in other circumstances — she emerged gleaming from the wreckage of “Bright Star” in 2016 — is overpowered here by material that, if it can work at all today, can do so only when rough-handled by a mauler.
That seems to have been the happier case when Encores! first revived the show in 1995, with Tyne Daly as the ambassador. I didn’t see it then, but the recording of the Irving Berlin score from that production delivers the thrill of a performance that knocks down everything in its path.
And the flimsy story, not just the role of Sally Adams, requires that. When Adams, who liberally buys Washington influence with her oil millions, gets the D-list patronage job in Lichtenburg, where “babies and cheese are our main industries,” she thinks that because it is a duchy its citizens must be Dutch. (The musical’s book is by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.)
Despite the ministrations of her eager young assistant, Kenneth Gibson (Jason Gotay), and of the embassy’s imperious chargé d’affaires, Pemberton Maxwell (Michael Benjamin Washington), she makes gauche mistakes in both protocol and policy. The authors’ intention is clearly to satirize the underinformed internationalism of postwar America: Adams’s faith in capital and capitalism leads her to attempt to solve cash-strapped Lichtenburg’s problems by poulticing them with dollar bills. “Can you use any money today?” she sings.
In a preshow welcome on Wednesday, the Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel said that one reason for revisiting “Call Me Madam” was to see how a political satire from 1950 differed from satire today. Fair enough — and a few lines, whether original or interpolated, elicited rueful laughter from an audience asked to recall a period of American history when a top marginal tax rate of almost 85 percent left the treasury overflowing with the potential to do good in the world.
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But “Call Me Madam” can’t support much political reflection, or any reflection, really, because its focus on know-nothing ambassadors and reflexive largess quickly becomes subservient to its dispiritingly dated romantic plot.
It’s not enough that young Gibson should fall in forbidden love with Lichtenburg’s Princess Maria, wittily played by Lauren Worsham as a demented Dresden doll; Adams herself must also fall at first glance for Cosmo Constantine, the handsome foreign minister. Out of excess pride and nobility, he rejects her offer of $100 million to solve the duchy’s problems: “We are waiting for your country to offer the world something more than money.” But he does not reject her affection.
This leads to some lovely singing, as Ms. Cusack and her Cosmo, Ben Davis, dig into pleasantly second-drawer Berlin numbers like “Something to Dance About,” “Marrying for Love” and “The Best Thing for You.” Ms. Cusack, who seemed as if she might be under the weather on Wednesday, could not quite pull off the necessary big notes but was lovely to listen to everywhere else; Mr. Davis is a dream. Still, the songs mostly backfire dramatically by forcing us to sympathize with characters, especially Adams, whom the book otherwise wishes us to treat as objects of surprisingly coarse satire. The form and the content are hopelessly uncoupled.
It is telling, regarding both Berlin in 1950 and the production today, that the secondary characters, basically free from any hope of serving the plot, come off best. Between them, Mr. Gotay and Ms. Worsham get the evergreen duet “It’s a Lovely Day Today” as well as a charming rarity (“Once Upon a Time, Today”) and a hilariously bizarre “local color” ensemble, “The Ocarina.” The choreographer, Denis Jones, has staged this bit of period nonsense as if from the inside of a cuckoo clock.
But the only time the score really breaks through the fog of mildness is when Mr. Gotay and Ms. Cusack sing the contrapuntal duet Berlin wrote quickly during the show’s out-of-town tryout: “You’re Just in Love.” For a wonderful moment as the melodies intertwine, you feel in Ms. Hushion’s otherwise laborious production what it must have been like when big, peculiar, unsanded personalities elevated stories instead of merely serving them.
You also feel, with some emotion, that Berlin understood the difference. He wasn’t a musical dramatist but a songwriter, and by 1950 he saw which way the wind was blowing. At a few key moments in “Call Me Madam,” he interpolates the melody of “God Bless America,” which he’d written more than 30 years earlier. It comes off as both a winking self-tribute and an eyes-wide-open eulogy to a world and a style he would long outlive.
Call Me Madam
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