Age and experience count, as is being most entertainingly proved by a posse of veteran character actors led by Broadway’s M’el Dowd and cabler American Movie Classics former host Bob Dorian in “Me and My Girl,” the equally veteran musical that’s opening Goodspeed Musicals’ 40th anniversary season. Gray of hair they may be, but these comparative old-timers, who are anything but geriatric and who include Ron Wisniski and George Cavey, are ever so casually stealing the scene from the show’s younger generation. Dowd in particular, charmingly partnered by Dorian’s tiddly Sir John, is the cement that holds this production together. That’s remarkable in light of the fact that her character, the Duchess of Dene, is primarily a dialogue rather than a song-and-dance role. Add the sheer inventiveness (sometimes too much) of director Scott Schwartz and his ability to galvanize his cast and musicians and you have, despite its limitations, a production that projects happiness.
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Unhappily, its limitations are right at the top, along with the fact that few members of the cast, which can dance up a Cockney storm, sing well. But the main problem is that this “Me and My Girl” just doesn’t have a strong enough “Me.” The 1936 musical originally was commissioned by top British star Lupino Lane to incorporate the Cockney character he’d been playing for years, Bill Snibson, and so the musical is very much a vehicle for a star. In the musical’s revised and enlarged reincarnation in London and on Broadway in the early 1980s, Brit Robert Lindsay proved more than capable of projecting star personality and incorporating bits of business that seemed completely natural to him.
Not so Hunter Bell at the Goodspeed. He’s not a star, and the more he tries to play to the audience, winking, nudging and double-taking, the less convincing he is. He’d be more acceptable if he tried less hard.
Yet the overall impact of the production rises above this basic defect, primarily because of its unflagging energy, sweet songs and that everyone involved really seems to be enjoying themselves. Director and cast even make the show’s plethora of ancient corny jokes funny.
Then there are the bits of directorial business, one of the most priceless of which easily might have degenerated into tasteless campiness but surely doesn’t. It’s when Bill, a crass Cockney who is found to be the heir to the fortune and title of the Earl of Hareford, is visited by a band of ancestors, including a horned Viking. At the end of the line is a deliriously dizzy dancing fairy clad in full French royal regalia who constantly gets out of hand, tapping away on his tippy-tippy-toes. Warren Freeman plays this role with such carefree outrageousness that he’s hilarious.
The cast also shares one member with the cast of the 1988 touring production of the musical that played New Haven’s Shubert Theater. He’s Stephen Temperley, who was the Hon. Gerald (horrified at the thought of work) then, and is now very good indeed as the singing-dancing butler. Of the younger generation of leading cast members, Michele Ragusa is most effective as a glamorous man-hunting vamp of a Lady Jacqueline.
Inspired by the Charleston and Cockney dance, choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his hoofers whip up a frenzy of physicality. And, although the show’s big hit song, “The Lambeth Walk,” continues to give act one an upbeat ending, more could be made of it. It certainly needs a stronger leading singing voice than that of Bell.
An elaborate gilt frame surrounds the baronial scenery of Anna Louizos, which in turn is covered by gilt-framed ancestor portraits. Other gilt-framed paintings are cleverly used early on to suggest a motoring trip, the driver holding up a painting of a period car while other servants trot across the stage holding paintings of passing scenery. David C. Woolard’s period costumes are expert, ranging from glamorous to upper-crust dowdy as called for. Michael O’Flaherty and his small pit band work wonders.
“Me and My Girl” may be an instantly forgettable musical, but Goodspeed’s revival of it has enough elan to keep it merrily afloat through July 5.