Jerry Herman was once defined by Alan Jay Lerner as the Irving Berlin of his generation, and “Showtune,” a collection of Herman classics at the Pasadena Playhouse, demonstrates why Herman deserves this sobriquet. Master of the songs-you-can-hum school, Herman represents a pre-Sondheim Broadway that embraces optimism rather than cerebral suffering and angst. Once accused of being too commercial, Herman responded, “Too commercial? That’s like saying the bride is too pretty.” These 40 songs, even with problems in the presentation, are a beguiling reminder that Broadway needs straightforward, easily singable melodies more than ever.
Directed by Bill Starr from Paul Gilger’s concept, “Showtune” keeps the crowd constantly high despite weaknesses. Many of the performers in act one have a kind of anonymous, interchangeable proficiency, compounded by too much stress on ensemble staging. In pursuit of bullet-fast pacing, some numbers are too sharply abbreviated. “It’s Today” and “We Need a Little Christmas,” both from “Mame,” seem to race by, and “The Man in the Moon” lacks eccentricity, never cutting as satirically and deeply as it should. Choreography by director Starr is constrained at first, and Maggie Morgan’s pastel costumes in the first half don’t do enough to distinguish the ensemble members from each other.
The production is on firmer footing with Merle Dandridge’s “I Am What I Am,” from “La Cages Aux Folles.” She has a warm, throaty voice, sizzling sex appeal and the ability to bring every lyric line to life. Starr understands how to bring out her best qualities, and by the time Dandridge belts out “Time Heals Everything” and “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow,” we’re looking forward to a separate showcase for her charismatic talents.
“I Won’t Send Roses,” from “Mack and Mabel,” is a special favorite with Herman fans, and its rendition by Martin Vidnovic and Mary Jo Mecca underscores the wry indirectness of the lyric. Robert Yacko unbends sufficiently to capture the quirky appeal of “A Little More Mascara,” from “La Cage.”
Act two is like another show. John Iacovelli’s set pieces acquire welcome color, Morgan’s costumes suddenly gain humor and individuality, and the actors break free from their monochromatic mold and emerge as distinct personalities. Bobby Peaco’s expert entr’acte piano version of “Hello, Dolly!” (well arranged by musical director James Followell) provides a lilting lead-in. Christopher Corts is hilarious as a Nelson Eddy-type Mountie on “My Best Girl” and equally winning on “It Only Takes a Moment.” Stephanie Lynge has a triumph doing “Nelson,” in which she, as Jeanette MacDonald, trashes her co-star’s talent. Mary Jo Mecca gets her chance to dominate and does a brilliant job with “If He Walked Into My Life.”
Lynge displays a rosy comedic spark as Agnes Gooch, lamenting out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sharing an infectious tap dance with her male co-stars. Another bright spot is “Bosom Buddies,” featuring vibrantly venomous interplay between deadly competitors Dolly and Mame. One of the final songs in the show is “I Promise You a Happy Ending,” and “Showtune,” despite a few bumps along the way, delivers solidly on that promise.