Review: ‘Hey, Look Me Over’ Surprises at Encores!
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, February 13, 2018
As any musical-theater devotee can tell you, Encores! is the annual series of performances at New York City Center of historical musicals that have somehow fallen through the cracks. Every year, Encores! chooses three musicals to resurrect, and each year aficionados eagerly anticipate the announcement of the lineup for the upcoming Encores! season.
When the folks at Encores! announced that this year they would be devoting one of their three precious spots to a revue, hearts sank, including my own. The revue would be called Hey, Look Me Over!, and would comprise a series of numbers from shows that had been considered for Encores! over the years but for some reason were never programmed. It seemed a decidedly odd choice: celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Encores! series with selections from shows that they hadn’t done.
So, I’ll admit that I went into Hey, Look Me Over! thinking that, on the whole, I’d rather see Encores! just pick one of these shows and do it. However, I wound up enjoying myself much more than I expected, partly because of my affection for the selected shows: Mack and Mabel, Milk and Honey, Wildcat, All American, Greenwillow, Jamaica, and Sail Away.
Plus, there was the spectacular lineup of Broadway performers assembled, the sum of which today would likely be too expensive for an actual Broadway show: Clyde Alves, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Tam Mutu, Bebe Neuwirth, Nancy Opel, Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha, and Vanessa Williams. I mean, yowza.
But what really sealed the deal for me was Bob Martin, returning to his iconic role as Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone, providing context, quips, and connective patter. The conceit here is essentially that, after years of writing nasty letters to Artistic Director Jack Viertel about Encores! programming, Man in Chair receives a terse response: “Fine, you do it.”
Martin’s patter is alternately charming and naughty, funny and quirky, with just enough edge to maintain the curmudgeonly nature of his beloved Drowsy character. True, the narration doesn’t always serve the musical he’s setting up, and the jokes don’t all land. But he more than matches the affection that many audience members have for these historical shows, like when he cues the start of the show with, “Let’s begin the way all the best things in life begin, with an overture.”
Although the prospect of a revue galled at first, it quickly became clear that a majority of these shows probably couldn’t stand up to the full-scale Encores! treatment. Perhaps it was wise, then, to just cherry-pick key moments and avoid slogging through the rest. As Hey, Look Me Over! progresses, we thankfully have moved past a show before it has time to wear out its welcome.
Among the shows we’re unlikely to see at Encores! any time soon is Wildcat, the most well-known song from which contributed its title to this revue. I will say that the song “Hey, Look Me Over” was a genuinely rousing way to start the show, particularly in Carolee Carmello’s full-throated rendition.
All American will also likely remain obscure, although “Once Upon a Time,” a song I’ve always found dull, gained a lot in performance, particularly with Judy Kuhn and Reed Birney doing the honors. Likewise Jamaica, although Vanessa Williams and her dancing boys did a fine job with “Push The Button.”
The Frank Loesser flop Greenwillow reveals itself to be the oddest of ducks, self-consciously so, and more than a little bit twee. But Broadway newcomer Clifton Duncan, with his strapping physique and powerhouse voice practically stole the show with his impassioned rendition of “Never Will I Marry.” Duncan is currently making his Broadway debut in the replacement cast of The Play That Goes Wrong. Let’s find a way to get this outstanding performer into a Broadway musical sometime very soon, shall we?
As for the shows worthy of a full-scale Encores! production, I humbly present the following three-show season: Mack and Mabel, Milk and Honey, and Sail Away. Mack and Mabel should be a no-brainer, and it’s frankly surprising Encores! hasn’t already done the show. Despite its flop status, Mack and Mabel is widely beloved in the theater community, and Jerry’s Herman’s score is nothing short of sensational.
If Encores! can find someone to cut down the Mack and Mabel’s problematic book, as they did with Anyone Can Whistle, they could be onto a winner here. And by all means bring back Douglas Sills as Mack. Sills showed a wonderful edgy intensity in his performance here, and his “Movies Were Movies,” of all songs, actually gave me chills. Alexandra Socha would likewise be welcome in reprising her spunky, endearing Mabel.
Milk and Honey, also with a lovely score by Jerry Herman, would make a great companion piece to Mack and Mabel. Based on the charming production of Milk and Honey at the York Theatre’s Musicals in Mufti series last year, the show would play much better than, say, Do I Hear a Waltz?, a show Encores! produced a few seasons back to soporific effect.
Another no-brainer would be Sail Away, particularly if Encores! could get Bebe Newirth to return with her wry, world-weary take on divorcee Mimi Paragon. And, hey, bringing back darkly handsome Tam Mutu to play her love interest and sing the breezy title song wouldn’t be a bad idea either.
One major element that made Hey, Look Me Over! such an unexpected pleasure was Denis Jones’ choreography. Here, Jones solidifies his reputation as a first-class choreographer, building upon his thrilling work in Holiday Inn. Jones has an uncanny knack for building a showstopper, which he does here with vibrant dance numbers for Milk and Honey and the show’s rousing finale, “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
On a final note, Hey, Look Me Over! ended with a none-too-subtle comment on our current shameful political situation by having the entire cast, post-curtain call, perform Irving Berlin’s stirring “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from Miss Liberty. The lyric, of course, comes from the Emma Lazarus poem printed at the feet of the Statue of Liberty. It was a sobering reminder of the tempest-tossed world from which Hey, Look Me Over provides escape, if ever so fleeting.
‘Hey, Look Me Over!’ presented by New York City Center Encores! At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, on February 7-11, 2018. Conception by Jack Viertel; Director: Marc Bruni; music director: Rob Berman; choreography by Denis Jones; set design by Allen Moyer; costume design by Alejo Vietti; lighting design by Paul Miller; sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Cast: Clyde Alves, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Britney Coleman, Clifton Duncan, Marc Kudisch, Judy Kuhn, Bob Martin, Tam Mutu, Bebe Neurwirth, Nancy Opel, Douglass Sills, Alexandra Socha, and Vanessa Williams.
Cover: Vanessa Williams and cast of ‘Hey, Look Me Over!;’ photo: Joan Marcus.