Jule Styne, who provided the music for “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” as well as scores for “Gypsy” and “Funny Girl,” once was identified by Leonard Bernstein as “the best and most underrated composer of his generation.” His tunes for “Blondes” are so infectious and memorable that they single-handedly keep an old-fashioned, superficial show afloat. Book, by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, is a loosely constructed, fragmentary foundation, but Styne’s melodies (with incisive, witty lyrics by Leo Robin) provide characterization and a good-natured atmosphere that divert attention from dated attitudes and situations. Director John Bowab appears to recognize the weak, expositional moments and plunges confidently past them, aided by Alan Johnson’s high-kicking choreography.
The show, which had a Broadway run of 740 performances and made a star of Carol Channing, spotlights Lorelei Lee (Alice Ripley), a gold digger with a ravenous desire for diamonds, and her husband-hunting friend Dorothy Shaw (Valarie Pettiford). Leaving behind a frantic, smitten Gus (Tom Beyer), her button-manufacturer boyfriend, Lorelei sails for Paris with Dorothy and romantic liaisons start piling up.
For Dorothy, the surprise catch is wealthy Philadelphian Henry Spofford (Hugh Panaro). Lorelei, in sizzling salmon pantsuit, reels in Sir Francis Beekman (Ian Abercrombie), vegetarian zipper king Josephus Gage (Greg Zerkle) and a host of buff, sex-hungry bachelors. But through it all, we’re told that Lorelei’s true love is Gus, and a set of improbable circumstances eventually reunite them and result in a double wedding for the women.
Production takes off with Lorelei’s “I’m Just a Little Girl From Little Rock,” and escalates joyfully with “I Love What I’m Doing,” a dancing delight blending Dorothy with a group of Olympic men. Other highlights are “Mami Is Mimi,” socked across by two splendid dancers, Lance Roberts and Abe Sylvia, and an uninhibited Kimberly Lyon.
Ripley’s finest moment comes with her playfully seductive rendition of the classic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” purring risque lyrics before a mirror while two men outfit her with gloves and jewelry. Ripley is appealing and sensual, with lip-curling movements that recall Marilyn Monroe.
Overall, however, Ripley never fully imposes her stamp on the character. She isn’t exaggerated or eccentric enough for the role. She falls somewhere between a nice girl and a greedy one. In the scene where she confesses to having shot a molester while attending stenography school, we should feel more keenly the conflict of a young woman who has to cope with sexual pressure and exploitation from men, and its impact on her life.
Pettiford, though lacking the sharp, cutting dialogue her part deserves, sings and dances with gutsy, driving energy. Her performance is clear-eyed, tough and refreshingly unsentimental, and Panaro is likable as her lover, adding a forthright charm that humanizes his cardboard role.
Ruth Williamson, portraying an aristocrat who turns out to be an imposter, offers sparkling support. Her farcical face, topped by two tall green feathers, is the human equivalent of a Hirschfeld caricature. Beyer’s Gus is comedic and convincing, and Abercrombie is amusing as the woman-chasing nobleman.
Costumes usually embellish, rather than dominate, but Bill Hargate’s clothes — a parade of feathers, bangles, balloons and buttons — are major stars here, enhancing every moment with a blindingly bright profusion of colors. Peter Matz’s small orchestra is equally fine, furnishing some of the cleanest, most buoyant sounds Reprise! has ever featured.