“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” the finale of this year’s Encores! season, was already a throwback to old-fashioned musical comedy when it came along in 1949 in the wake of “Carousel” and “South Pacific.” Long languishing on the list of not-quite-great musicals, the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” tuner surprisingly gleams here with the brilliance of a 40-carat Tiffany stone. A friendly assemblage of tuneful songs and durable comedy, this is indeed the sort of show they don’t write anymore. Even if star Megan Hilty is hampered by memorable prior interpretations of her role, this “old-fashioned” specimen looks pretty damn good.
Roaring Twenties plot is based on Anita Loos’ 1925 novel about the indestructible gold digger Lorelei Lee, which was quickly adapted into a hit comedy in 1926 and a silent film in 1928. Book by Loos and Joseph Fields is workable, albeit trimmed here by David Ives, whereas the score by composer Jule Styne and lyricist Leo Robin is rollickingly good, highlighted by the iconic “Diamonds” song. But there are a dozen such morsels, led by “A Little Girl from Little Rock,” “Bye, Bye Baby” and “You Say You Care.”
Big news here is the presence of Hilty, whose Broadway credentials have been overshadowed by her gig as one of the striving actresses in NBC’s “Smash.” Hilty is very good as Lorelei, but only very good. Carol Channing burst into prominence with her legendary performance in the role; Marilyn Monroe, too, made an indelible impression in the 1953 film version. Hilty’s performance is more Monroe than Channing, but the part calls for something more distinctive than a reasonable carbon.
Because Encores! allows only a short rehearsal time, it’s expected that Hilty will grow by the end of the seven-performance run. On opening night she was already giving a dynamite rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but she was not yet very funny, especially in the climactic murder trial monologue (which should be sidesplitting).
The choreography by Randy Skinner (“42nd Street”), too, is impressive and abundant but not quite knockout. The dancers, however, are wonderful — headed by Jared Grimes (an excellent tapper), Phillip Attmore and Megan Sikora — and director John Rando keeps things moving.
Hilty is well supported by her co-stars, including Rachel York as Lorlei’s pal Dorothy. Aaron Lazar breathes some life into the role of the millionaire from Philly, while Clarke Thorell and Stephen R. Buntrock do what they can with their underwritten parts. But “Blondes” is altogether Lorelei’s show, which makes Hilty’s perf so central to the musical’s overall effect.
It’s the songs that stand out here, with sterling work from orchestrator Don Walker and vocal arranger Hugh Martin. Encores! provides twelve chorus members who do nothing but sing — as opposed to today’s usual singer/dancers — and who make these colorful vocals thrilling. The score gleams in the hands of musical director Rob Berman and his expert orchestra; a cast album is promised.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” is one of Encores’ happiest offerings, and a balm to audiences smarting over a Broadway season in which two of the four best score Tony nominations went to non-musicals. It’s grandly entertaining, but you can’t help but wish that Ms. Hilty was hysterically, rather than reasonably, funny.