Three years ago writer Sherman Yellen and composer Wally Harper set out, in Yellen’s words, “to memorialize” the 1939 New York World’s Fair and its theme “The World of Tomorrow” in all its starry-eyed innocence and “capture the comic postcard charm that was also its hallmark.” Somewhere they lost their way, and their resulting musical, “Say Yes!,” a labored, charmless parody of dumb old musical comedies with a score that’s pale period pastiche, makes no more than incidental use of the World’s Fair. Its characters are cliches and its storyline doesn’t bear telling. Suffice to say that it’s about a dumb-blonde debutante, her snob of a mother who wants her to marry a rich man, the rich man who loves a poor girl and the poor dumb-blond suitor the deb loves. A few lifelines are thrown out along the way since Yellen’s writing doesn’t lack humor, including references to “Crime and Punishment” in one of his lyrics and a gay joke about J. Edgar Hoover, and experienced musician Harper’s score isn’t disagreeable. But whatever virtues “Say Yes!” may have, it’s no more than an instantly disposable summer-stock artifact.
This Berkshire Theater Festival production appears to have spent more money on the costumes than the sets, another reason why the World’s Fair has been given short shrift. Apart from a couple of maps of the fair, one of which serves as the front curtain, and some cutouts, including dancing couples, a car and a tram, there’s precious little of substance to Kenneth Foy’s sets. Ann Hould-Ward’s gaudy costumes make more of a statement, notably her matched sets for debutante Gloria Host (Meredith Patterson) and her mother-from-hell the Baroness (Linda Thorson). The latter character seems to have been based on Cruella De Vil, and one of her costumes, a blue-and-white spotted number, actually makes her look like an aging dalmatian.
Introduced in the opening number “Life” as if they’re Life magazine covers, the cast works hard but ultimately is unable to transcend their material, Thorson probably having the best of it as the villainess and Patterson being suitably dumb-beautiful as the deb who gets the line “I just love Steinbeck, he makes the best pianos.” J. Robert Spencer, spectacles and all, is affectionately nerdy as the rich boy Barnaby Cross, and Timothy Warmen happily sends up his dumb-handsome character Hurricane Murphy, notably in his song “Rumbleseat Blues.”
As the poor idealistic reporter who, though despising the rich, falls in love with Barnaby, Christianne Tisdale’s wholehearted performance is hampered by a less than attractive singing voice. She and Patterson, joined by Denny Dillon as a chubby reporter turned Miss Information at the fair, are at their best in the trio “Sob, Sister, Sob.”
The rest of the cast is OK, though John Deyle is understandably stumped by the unforgivably awful character Helmut Bertelsman, a Swiss chocolatier who turns out to be the Baroness’s “dead” husband. Jay Binder and Thommie Walsh’s contributions as director and choreographer aren’t particularly evident.
Accompanying the cast at two pianos are Steven Freeman and Scott Cady. They do so with vigorous commitment, though their two-piano sound only emphasizes the sameness of a score that has far too many almost identical patter songs.
Sadly, the only possible, all-too-obvious reaction to “Say Yes!” is to say no.