By Brian Scott Lipton
“Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” the playwright George S. Kaufman famously said. Well, in the case of the Casey Hushion’s production of Call Me Madam, which opens the 2019 Encores series, this gentle satire of American and foreign politics will close at New York City Center on Sunday night – but simply by necessity.
In reality, this 1950 tuner, while decidedly old-fashioned, proves to have plenty of ingredients that could allow it to have a somewhat longer run: the wit of authors Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the delightful tunes of Irving Berlin, and, above all, the talents of a top-tier cast who shine in roles that range from grand to nearly miniscule.
True, its most prominent member, Carmen Cusack, can’t erase the memory of Ethel Merman, who originated the role of wealthy if unsophisticated Sally Adams. She has neither the house-filling belt or larger-than-life presence of Merman (or even Tyne Daly, who played Sally in Encores’ 1995 production of the show) — and that proves to be a weakness at times, especially during her first number, “The Hostess with the Mostess’ On the Ball.”
But Cusack soon makes the role of Sally, who is appointed to be ambassador to the tiny European duchy of Lichtenburg and ends up way too involved in its affairs – in every sense of the word – her own. She has a down-home way of speaking that is ideal for the Oklahoma-born heiress; a warmth that makes it easy to see why the ultra-suave Cosmo Constantine (the velvet-voiced Ben Davis) would fall in love with her; and a strong yet supple voice that lends itself beautifully to numbers as diverse as “Can You Use Any Money Today,” “The Best Thing for You,” and the show’s iconic duet, “You’re Just In Love” (gorgeously co-sung by Jason Gotay, who is thoroughly endearing as her naïve aide Kenneth Gibson.)
Intriguingly, a show many think of purely as a star vehicle has plenty of great parts – or at least moments – for its supporting players. Lauren Worsham is beyond delicious as the diminutive Princess Marie, who quickly falls for Kenneth, and she is wondrous while leading the ensemble in Berlin’s charming “The Ocarina.”
Brad Oscar, Adam Heller and Stanley Wayne Mathis as a trio of seasoned politicians earn plenty of laughs (especially thanks to some all-too-timely jabs at the Republican party) and almost literally bring down the house during “They Like Ike.” YouTube sensation Randy Rainbow makes the most of his small time onstage as Lichtenburg’s prime minister, Sebastian Sebastian, as does Michael Benjamin Washington as Sally’s exasperated staffer Pemberton Maxwell. And, last but certainly not least, Carol Kane and Darrell Hammond practically steal the show in their glorified cameos as Grand Duchess Sophie and her dimwitted husband, Grand Duke Otto.
As always, the large Encores orchestra, under the direction of Rob Berman, sounds divine, and the ensemble (lavishly costumed by Jen Caprio) executes the sprightly choreography of Denis Jones with estimable flair. (Once again, there are no books to be seen anywhere on stage during even the first performance.)
While this isn’t a show that deserves a full-fledged Broadway revival, it’s certainly worth a first (or second or third) look — which is why savvy theatergoers should call right away to see what tickets are left for the remaining performances of Call Me Madam.
Photos: Stephanie Berger
Call Me Madam continues at New York City Center (131 W. 55th Street) through Sunday, February 9. Call 212-581-1212 or visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets.