Review: ‘Call Me Madam’

Call Me Madam

We've all heard the cry, "There's nothing you can hum," from disappointed theatergoers at Broadway musicals. That complaint will not be heard as houses exit the Reprise! production of "Call Me Madam" at the UCLA Freud Playhouse. Not only are the 13 Irving Berlin songs hummable, it's hard to stop yourself from leaping on-stage and singing along with the cast.

We’ve all heard the cry, “There’s nothing you can hum,” from disappointed theatergoers at Broadway musicals. That complaint will not be heard as houses exit the Reprise! production of “Call Me Madam” at the UCLA Freud Playhouse. Not only are the 13 Irving Berlin songs hummable, it’s hard to stop yourself from leaping on-stage and singing along with the cast.

Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse’s book revolves around Sally Adams (Karen Morrow), a flamboyant Washington “hostess with the mostess.” Beguilingly brash, lacking in social graces, this diamond-in-the-rough dame is sent by President Truman to the mythical duchy of Lichtenburg as a goodwill ambassador. Sally, accompanied by her earnest, political-minded assistant Kenneth (Hugh Panaro) shocks, then con-quers the kingdom with her blunt honesty.

Before long two parallel romantic plots develop: Sally falls for Cosmo, a handsome politician (Michael Nouri), and her aide Kenneth becomes infatuated with the beautiful princess Maria (Melissa Dye).

Love triumphs in true fairytale style, but the central romance isn’t completely convincing. Although Morrow sings capably and tosses off lines with likable professionalism, she’s not larger than life. Unlike original star Ethel Merman, Morrow’s phone monologues with Truman are too tame. Jokes that needed whacking emphasis are thrown away, and she seems like a fish only mildly out of water, rather than a brazen, uncul-tured broad with a heart of gold.

What makes “Madam” so dynamic are the endearing second leads, Hugh Panaro (formerly a “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway) and Melissa Dye (who starred in Broadway’s “Grease”). Their pairing on “It’s a Lovely Day Today” is one of the evening’s high spots. Dye, a vision in lavender chiffon, proves the perfect Lichtenburg Cinderella.

Morrow rises to the occasion in her show-stopping contrapuntal duet with Panaro, “You’re Just in Love,” provoking whistles and roars of approval from the audience. Michael Tucci, Paul Clausen and Gerry McIntyre, playing three zany senators, bring down the house with “I Like Ike” (which became Eisenhower’s campaign song). Alan Johnson’s choreography gives the show a shot in the arm with every number, and his dancers do justice to every high kick and spin.

Some of the topical 1950 jokes are dated or corny, and the timing is off on important punch lines, but a spirit of good fun is maintained by Peter Matz and Gerald Sternbach’s musical direction, Noel Taylor’s glamorous costumes and Philip G. Allen’s sound design. Above all, director John Bowab keeps the focus where it belongs: on Berlin’s songbook of unforgettable melodies.

Call Me Madam

UCLA Freud Playhouse; 554 seats; $50 top

Production

A Reprise! presentation of a musical in two acts with book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Directed by John Bowab.

Creative

Producer, Marcia Seligson; concert adaptation, Charles Repole, Bill Russell; musical director, Peter Matz; choreogra-phy, Alan Johnson; sets, Ray Klausen; lighting, Tom Ruzika; sound, Philip G. Allen; costumes, Noel Taylor. Opened and reviewed Sept. 13, 2000; closes Sept. 24. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Mrs. Sally Adams - Karen Morrow Mr. Gibson - Jeff Austin Kenneth Gibson - Hugh Panaro Congressman Wilkins - Michael Tucci Senator Gallagher - Gerry McIntyre Senator Brockbank - Paul Clausen Pemberton Maxwell - Robert Mandan Cosmo Constantine - Michael Nouri Sebastian Sebastian - Paul Keith Princess Maria - Melissa Dye Grand Duchess Sophie - Jennifer Butt Grand Duke Otto - Jeff Austin
With: Sekiya Billman, Stephanie J. Block, Julia Gregory, James Patric Moran, Rick Negron, Abe Sylvia, Erin Johnson, Lindsay Mendez, Lauren Persico.
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