City Center auds might almost believe they've been transported a hundred years into the future, when Encores! will be reviving a once-renowned musical by a man named Mel Brooks. Nope -- it's "Pardon My English," an obscure George and Ira Gershwin musical set in Dresden, and featuring a book so inane it's almost endearing.

Hey, what century is this, anyway? City Center audiences watching chorus boys and girls singing a merry mocking song about a “little German band,” and getting earache from a dizzying assault of bad puns, might almost believe they’ve been transported a hundred years into the future, when Encores! will no doubt be reviving a once-renowned musical by a man named Mel Brooks. Nope — it’s “Pardon My English,” an obscure George and Ira Gershwin musical set in Dresden, of all unlikely locales, and featuring a book so monumentally inane it’s almost endearing.

Performed with ample musical expertise and just the right combination of affection and hokey self-consciousness, Gary Griffin’s production doesn’t exactly make a case for “Pardon My English” as a lost musical comedy treasure. “Producers” it certainly isn’t. But the loopy storyline provides a reasonably diverting platform for some bona fide Gershwin gems — “Isn’t It a Pity,” “MyCousin From Milwaukee” and “The Lorelei” — and a good half-dozen more minor but appealing songs that are performed with spirited brio by Griffin’s game cast.

Called “a headache from start to finish” by Ira, the 1933 tuner was assembled to suit its performers. The hero is a British secret agent who divulges a peculiar alter ego — a German hoodlum obsessed with American gangster movies, no less — when he’s bopped on the head with a champagne bottle.

He was to be played by the English star Jack Buchanan, who sensibly backed out. Radio comic Jack Pearl, known for his German-accented catch phrase “Vas you there, Charly?,” was cast as the Dresden police chief whose daughter becomes entangled with the hero(es). Lyda Roberti, a curvy blonde also known for her merry mangling of the language, played the Polish chanteuse aligned with the hero’s German half.

None of them played the roles for long, however: The show folded in about a month. It’s not hard to deduce the reasons for this failure, with laugh lines like “It’s too Teutonic for words!” But the Gershwins’ ample contributions are worth a fresh hearing, and they are interpreted with the usual warmth and vitality by Encores! music director Rob Fisher and his first-rate orchestra.

There are a couple of sweeping waltzes. A perky tribute to the form, “In Three-Quarter Time,” may not be Ira’s finest hour — “Our dogs they have rabies, our women have babies, in three-quarter time…” — but it’s sung with silky charm by Brian D’Arcy James, who gives a lively performance in the pseudo-dual role of Golo Schmidt, the German gangster who owns the speakeasy where much of the show it set, and Michael Bramleigh, “world-traveling secret agent.” “Tonight,” a duet for Golo (or is it Michael?) and the police chief’s daughter, is a more beguiling sample of the musical form.

The gaga plot is in part a satire of prohibition (at Golo’s speakeasy, it’s soft drinks that are verboten), but the Mitteleuropean setting, and the hero’s peculiar affliction, allowed the show’s creators to shoehorn in a spoof of psychoanalysis. Tom Alan Robbins goofs merrily as Dr. Adolph Steiner, mayor and official psychiatrist, leading his minions in a must-be-heard-to-be-believed comic tune called “Freud, Jung and Adler.” Rousing chorus: “Six sex psychos we!”

The cast lights into the silliness with infectious glee. Emily Skinner vamps it up as Gita, the Roberti role, with an overripe accent and luscious comic delivery. Sweet-toned soprano Jennifer Laura Thompson plays the ingenue role with a nice light touch. Rob Bartlett bumbles happily through his role as the dopey police chief. D’Arcy James has the best time of all, romping through the split-personality role with outsized zest and just a smidgen of sweet sincerity.

David Ives’ crisp editing of the original book by Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind keeps the pacing tight and spreads the groan-inducing jokes around. The choicest of these is occasioned by the impending nuptials of Dickie Carter, Bramleigh’s twitty pal, affably played by Don Stephenson, and Magda, his “pulchritudinous parlor maid from Potsdam,” imbued with the proper ditziness by Felicia Finley. Asked why she’s so excited at the prospect, Magda replies, “Then I’ll get to be Magda Carter.” Get it? Well, er, the accent helps. Try it in fake German? Oh, never mind. You had to be there.

Pardon My English

City Center, New York; 2,753 seats; $90 top

Production

A City Center Encores! presentation of a concert staging of the musical in two acts with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and book by Herbert Fields and Morrie Ryskind. Directed by Gary Griffin. Music director, Rob Fisher.

Creative

Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, Ken Billington; sound, Scott Lehrer; concert adaptation, David Ives; orchestrations, Robert Russell Bennett, William Daly, Adolph Deutsch and Russel Warner; musical coordinator, Seymour Red Press; production stage manager, Karen Moore; choreography, Rob Ashford. Opened, reviewed March 26, 2004. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

With: Brian D'Arcy James, Emily Skinner, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Rob Bartlett, Don Stephenson, Tom Alan Robbins, Felicia Finley, Kevin Carolan, Lee Zarrett.
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