Laughter rippled through City Center as the ladies of the evening in “Tenderloin” lamented attempts by a grandstanding, upstanding reformer to sweep away Gotham’s more colorful pockets of vice. We denizens of Rudolph Giuliani’s New York can certainly sympathize, girls!
The timing of this latest Encores concertized revival had a certain cheeky aptness. And yet, while “Tenderloin” authors Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick hit paydirt with “Fiorello!,” a musical about a colorful New York mayor, Giuliani’s exploits probably wouldn’t make a very exciting show (11 o’clock number: “Down With Dung!”). Nor do those of Reverend Brock, the unlikely central character of this flop 1960 tuner (216 perfs), which nevertheless features a lively Bock-Harnick score long cherished by devotees of musical theater history.
Brock’s crusade to shut down the fleshpots of the city’s seedier districts is the most prominent of the show’s several plot lines, the rest of which are love stories that make up a bouquet of somewhat artificial flowers, to borrow the title from the show’s most famous song. Most of the entertainment is provided by the victims of Brock’s wrath, corrupt cops and working girls, making for a rather mixed message. The show’s most enchanting song, for example, is the rousing act-one closer called “How the Money Changes Hands,” a spirited cheer for the glories of graft performed by a madam, her employees and various customers. Dr. Brock, meanwhile, opens the second act with the affable but anodyne “Good Clean Fun,” which, as everyone knows, is not as much fun as the dirtier kind.
An able cast was on hand to serve a score that pays wonderful tribute to the show’s Gilded Age milieu. David Ogden Stiers, of “MASH” fame, had his stiff moments as Dr. Brock — how could he not? — but he sang in an attractive baritone. Patrick Wilson brought a touching, just slightly tongue-in-cheek tenderness to his singing of “Artificial Flowers,” a moist, mock-sentimental ballad with an ineffably pretty melody redolent of the era.
Wilson capably and energetically played Tommy, the scrappy reporter who tries to serve both Brock and his own pals in the underworld, with complicated results. Sarah Uriarte Berry was appealing as his upper-crust love interest Laura. Her pretty, light soprano was just right for Laura’s sweetish songs. In a largely non-singing role, Kevin Conway gave a terrifically crusty performance as Lt. Schmidt, the corrupt sheriff who wrangles with Dr. Brock to keep the city safe for salaciousness. Debbie Gravitte took home the vocal prize for her softly scorching rendition of “My Gentle Young Johnny,” and brought some nice brass to her role as a hooker who initially rebuffs the marital advances of a good-hearted millionaire — always a hazard of that business.
Walter Bobbie’s production had its inventive moments, such as the audience sing-along reprise of “Artificial Flowers” as the top of the second act. “Good Clean Fun” was choreographed by Rob Ashford with endearing silent-movie style speed and brio. But the show’s book is scattered and uninvolving, making the adorable Bock-Harnick songs seem economical to the point of skimpiness.
One suspects that atmosphere was the most captivating element in the original “Tenderloin,” and a semi-staged concert version obviously can only approximate it. The original featured sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton, and his scenery’s painterly trompe l’oeil effects are enchanting even in black and white photos. Alas, the characters in “Tenderloin” are trompe l’oeil, too, turning three-dimensional only when they break into song.