City Center’s “Encore” series of musicals in concert grows more confident with each outing, kicking off its third season with a lush, deluxe and lively reading of Cole Porter’s “Du Barry Was a Lady.”
Sure, it’s second-drawer Porter, and a silly, decadent piece of nonsense courtesy of the Herbert Fields/B.G. DeSylva book. But with such standards as “Do I Love You?””Well, Did You Evah?” and “Friendship,” and a fistful of innuendo-filled novelty numbers, who’s complaining? The only major misstep is a cameo by Donald Trump as an IRS agent; the tycoon muffed his few lines, getting tangled up in the reading of some dollar figures, if you can believe it.
The 1939 premiere featured Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr (directly on the heels of his Cowardly Lion triumph in “The Wizard of Oz”) as a speakeasy chanteuse and the”ladies’ maid in a gents’ room” who’s stuck on her — in vain, despite the fact that he’s just won $ 75,000 in the Irish Sweepstakes. She’s hot for a hunkier type. A switched Mickey Finn sends the whole enterprise to Versailles, where the same situation recurs, more or less.
The original cast also featured Betty Grable, praised by DailyVariety as “a lovely little trick who knows her stuff in both songs and dances,” though cautioning that she was “not so blond as pictured.” The show was a hit, running more than 400 performances.
The concert version is ably staffed by Faith Prince and Robert Morse in the leading roles. Prince works hard to erase any memory of her glorious turn as that other nightclub chanteuse, Miss Adelaide, which is too bad; she comes across vocally as just OK, without being particularly inspired, and “Katie Went to Haiti” is a letdown.
On the other hand, Prince’s comic timing is expert, and she’s a terrific foil to the irrepressible Morse as he clowningly recalls not only Lahr but W.C. Fields, as well. There are also fine contributions from Bruce Adler, Scott Waara , Liz Larsen and Michael McGrath.
But the evening’s revelation is Burke Moses as the romantic lead. As the hilariously muscle-bound Gaston, he was the best thing about “Beauty and the Beast.” Here, he’s no pumped-up cartoon, and his gorgeous baritone is displayed to great effect in “Do I Love You?” and “It Was Written in the Stars.”
Charles Repole’s production sports some deft touches — the orchestra players don white wigs for the Versailles interlude — and Peter Kaczorowski’s rich lighting adds plenty to the overall effect.
Lyrics and book elements that might offend have been cleaned up somewhat by playwright David Ives and “Encore” artistic director Walter Bobbie, though one wonders what the point of the tradeoff is in “Come on In,” for example, when the phrase “slant-eyed doll” is replaced with “geisha doll” to refer to a Japanese hootchie-kootchie dancer; “Nipponese nips” becomes “decorous dips.”
Oh, well: Sanitizing a libretto packed with more dirty thoughts than a seventh-grader’s daydream is surely one of the more absurd exigencies of the age.