Musical numbers: “Mr. Moliere,” “Singin’ a Start the Day Tune,” “The Navy’s in Town,” “My All-American Gal,” “A Saint She Ain’t!,” “The Nicest Town I Know,” “I Love to Hold Rose,” “I Only Dig That Jive,” “You’re the Only Star in My Heaven,” “Manitowoc,” “Can’t Help Dancing,” “The Banana for My Pie,” “There Ought to Be a Way,” “The Joke’s on Me,” “Finaletto.”
The bad puns pile up like a comedic road crash in “A Saint She Ain’t,” an intermittently endearing and deeply silly new musical that makes mincemeat of Moliere’s “The Imaginary Cuckold” with a (very) free hand. A local sellout in a city parched for new musical product, Denis King and Dick Vosburgh’s show at present looks like a textbook case of a hit by default. Does “A Saint She Ain’t” have legs? Not as Ned Sherrin’s production stands now, with a cast most of whom make one yearn for better, less strenuous performers-cum-parodists. Still, the jokes often soar — “I’d put my head in the oven if I could only cook” is pretty representative — even if the jokesters don’t: Should Tommy Tune be searching for product, he could do worse than start here.
It was Tune, of course, who made an early Broadway mark directing and choreographing “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” a previous show from London-based American lyricist-librettist Vosburgh, who won a 1980 Tony nomination for his efforts. This time around, Vosburgh has transplanted Moliere’s story of mistaken adultery to 1940s Hollywood and the MGM era of Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, with a distinct nod to sailors-on-leave sagas like “On the Town.”
The wide-eyed Anna (a thin-voiced Rae Baker) loves the well-meaning Danny (gangly Gavin Lee), though that scenario doesn’t begin to account for sexpot-of-a-certain-age Faye Bogle (Pauline Daniels, sashaying enjoyably about), a Mae West-like figure married to her own W.C. Fields equivalent in the gently snarling Snaveley (an ever-avuncular Barry Cryer).
Affections go astray as the subplots (and flashbacks) mount, and it isn’t long before the plot becomes an excuse for a series of wince-inducing puns that leaves the audience groaning in both disbelief and delight. An Abbott and Costello routine — as written — ranks with those pros at their best, but is undercut by the ear-to-ear mugging of performer Michael Roberts and an authorial tendency to overplay the comic hand.
That last problem characterizes an undeniably clever book that may well be a victim of its own excessive brio. By the time Brian Greene, playing the father of an increasingly distressed bride, proclaims, “This is getting monogamous,” that cardinal theatrical indiscretion known as monotony has begun to creep in.
Like all such send-ups, the material demands delivery from people who don’t betray that they’re in on the joke, and that is where Sherrin’s game staging on the King’s Head’s postage stamp of a stage lets him down. (So, too, does Patrick Connellan’s skimpy outline of a set, which amounts to nothing that a heftier budget could not put right.) If the senior players — veteran Cryer, in particular — outshine their younger counterparts, that’s because they have long ago learned the virtue of economy unlike some of their overeager colleagues from whom more is definitely less. (Playing the “HBF,” or “heroine’s best friend ,” an overingratiating Jessica Martin all but kills the second-act opener, daffily titled “Manitowoc.”)
Far happier notes are sounded by King’s score, a true pastiche whose lows get giddily subsumed within music that puts you in mind of Noel Coward one minute, the movie musical, swing, and Astaire and Rogers the next. At the finish (sweetly referred to here as “Finaletto”) comes a reprise of the sort one used to encounter prior to the “megamix” era of “Footloose,” “Mamma Mia!” and almost anything by Andrew Lloyd Webber. At present, “A Saint She Ain’t” is far too inchoate to be the answer to a critic’s prayers, but there’s sufficient skill awaiting a stronger showcase to remind one of that genuinely bygone era when musical comedy constituted its own blessed religion.