Face The Music
NY City Center Encores - April 2007
Review by John Kenrick
There is a new sub-genre of musical theatre -- the concert reconstruction. In recent years, Encores and other series have disinterred a number of neglected musicals from the archival vaults. In some cases, audiences get faithful recreations of what was presented decades ago, but more often a creative team decides to freshen things up a bit, putting their own stamp on the material. Face the Music had a then-healthy Broadway run of 165 performances back in 1932. It underwent changes during its post-New York tour, and the results got an additional month's run on Broadway in 1933. Some of the songs in Irving Berlin's score became standards, most notably the breezy Great Depression anthem "Let's Have Another Cop of Coffee" ("and Let's Have Anther Piece of Pie"). But the show -- which teetered between being a book musical and a revue -- was never filmed, and quickly faded from memory.
The staff at Encores, always on the lookout for likely properties, found this one an irresistible challenge. There were various versions of the joke-packed script by Moss Hart, and orchestrations for several of the songs were impossible to find. Former Encores musical director Rob Fisher got involved, and Urinetown director John Rando took the helm. What they presented to adoring City Center audiences may not have been exactly what audiences saw and heard back in the early 1930s, but it was clearly the sort of thing most Encores subscribers dote on. After all, how often does anyone get to see an Irving Berlin musical for the first time these days?
The alleged plot of Face the Music involves a Broadway director looking for someone to invest in his next show. His "angels" turn out to be members of the New York Police Department who are looking for a place to lose some of their hard-earned graft -- and where better to lose money than in a Broadway musical? When the musical gets scathing reviews, the cops take over and turn it into a nudie show. This does wonders for business, but attracts the attention of the FBI. The ensuing investigation leads to jail sentences, but a reminder that musicals must have happy endings persuades the judge to dismiss the case as the final curtain falls.
Walter Bobbie kept 'em guffawing as the unscrupulous producer with a knack for staging flops. Lee Wilkof (Little Shop's original Seymour) proved a master of old style comic dialogue as the top corrupt cop, and the glorious Judy Kaye had a field day as his dizzy, amoral wife. It takes a great talent like Kaye to win rolling laughs with lines like: "A grotto? Isn't that where the Jews live?" Eddie Korbich and Mylinda Hull danced and sang up a giddy storm as two vaudeville hoofers trying to make the big time -- and gave the audience real cause to raise the roof with Randy Skinner's inspired tap choreography. As the romantic ingénues, Meredith Patterson and Jeffrey Denman were attractive and polished but somewhat lacking in charisma, probably because they had so much material to master in so short a rehearsal period. Felicia Finlay damn near stole the show singing the forgotten and hilarious "Torch Song," and Chris Hoch won laughs spoofing every stiff-limbed tenor who has ever lumbered across a stage.
The Encores production team gave the proceedings usual sheen, with John Lee Beatty's sets and Clifton Taylor's lighting particular standouts. As a masterful interpreter of period music, Rob Fisher made the overture and other orchestral sequences pure magic to the ear.
Despite its occasional creaks, Face the Music has more wit and melody than most of the noise currently selling tickets on Broadway. Frankly, I would have preferred to see the original material on its own terms, without so many interpolations from other scores. But that is the nitpicking of a hopeless musical theatre buff. This adaptation certainly made for a dandy weekend at Encores, and any summer theatre or amateur group with a large, nostalgic audience base might do well to put this adaptation on their rosters -- but be warned, it will take top-notch talent with a flair for period material to make this soufflé rise.