REVIEWS: The Beauty Prize

The Beauty Prize Review April 27, 2005
Reviewed by Martin Denton

Most 82 year old musicals haven't aged well; The Beauty Prize proves a delightful exception. It was written in 1923 by Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, and George Grossmith, and although it's never been produced in New York until right now (it was a hit in London, however), it's a most welcome find. Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! have done it again.

Act One is mostly exposition - quite a lot of it, in fact. John Brooke, a handsome, suave, and perhaps somewhat profligate young Englishman, has fallen in love. The object of his affection is Carol Stuart, a beautiful American who, he thinks, hasn't a sou. (She thinks he's poor too - he told her he works as a clerk in the Foreign Office.) Carol, though, is at least as rich as John - she's the daughter of a rich New England businessman. Both are looking, of course, for someone to love them for themselves, rather than for their money, and it looks like they've found just that.

But all sorts of complications conspire to keep the lovers apart. Carol, it seems, has been entered in a beauty contest by a dim but well-meaning hat salesgirl named Lovey Toots; first prize is a husband, one Odo Philpott. Carol, naturally, wins. On the very day that she is to marry John, Odo arrives, ready to commence a six-month trial engagement prior to their nuptials. Carol's British chaperone, the acerbic Fannie, meanwhile, has spilled the beans about Carol's wealth to John, in hopes of winning him for herself. John, furious that Carol has tried to "buy" his love, breaks off with her.

Act Two finds everybody, perhaps a little improbably, on the same cruise ship to America. It is very funny. Odo, who is as good-natured a British twit as Wodehouse ever created, becomes the soul of the ship, organizing all kinds of events and winning all of the sports contests. Carol can't stand him; nor can John abide Lovey (I forgot to tell you that at the end of Act One he decided to marry her on the rebound). John's best pal and secretary, Flutey, tries to set things right by urging Carol and John to send themselves telegrams to the effect that they've been ruined; that way, they both can swallow their pride and admit their love for one another. But the scheme backfires when the ever-helpful Odo nobly decides that he and Lovey - who have fallen in love en voyage - must stand by their now impoverished fiancés.

Act Three - very quickly - sorts it all out.

The songs are plentiful and pretty. There's a lovely chorale called "Joy Bells" that contains some very sophisticated harmonies; a sweet love song for Carol and John called "For the Man I Love"; an interesting number that recurs throughout called "Take the Road with Me"; and a very lovely ballad sung by John in the first scene whose name is not noted in the program. There are also several charming songs commenting on a variety of '20s fads - one about mah jongg, one about the then-still-novel Marconi telegraph ("You Can't Make Love By Wireless"), and another very witty one about American middle class life as viewed by Sinclair Lewis ("Main Street"). This being a very primitive musical comedy, the songs often don't appear where you expect them - some pop up entirely out of the blue, with no apparent motivation; and there are any number of emotional moments where no song occurs even though it feels like one ought to. (This, for me, is one of the most interesting and fun aspects of looking in on a very old show.) But Kern's melodies are bright and the lyrics are surprisingly fresh.

Wodehouse & Grossmith's book - especially in the second act - is very witty and not so dated as you might think. A predilection for Wodehouse's trademark characters is probably helpful here: Bertie Wooster and Jeeves aren't exactly on hand, but shades of many of the others - Honoria Glassop and Bingo Little in particular - are clearly evident, and the goofy sophistication of Wodehouse's stories pervades the piece, along with his grand sense of humor. There is one line in the second act that made me laugh out loud for a good five or ten seconds.

As usual with Musicals Tonight! presentations, this is a concert-style staging with limited production values and the cast still working with script in hand (to their credit, many of them didn't seem to need it). Thomas Mills provides his usual witty staging, and Rick Hip-Flores is the fine accompanist. The cast of sixteen is generally very good, with the clear standout Mike Masters, who is very funny as Odo - he seems completely in tune with the Wodehouse sensibility in a way that few other actors, here or elsewhere, are able to manage. Sean Hayden, most welcome on a New York stage after several years away, is excellent as handsome leading man. John Brooke and sings his songs beautifully. Kelly Grant's operatic soprano is a little jarring for Carol, however, and Justin Sayre doesn't really have a handle on Flutey at all (he's playing Noel Coward feyness when Jeeves-style unflappability seems to be what's called for). But Mary Jo Mecca (Fannie), Adrienne Pisoni (Kitty), and Roger Rifkin (as Carol's manservant and later, in Act Three, her father) offer expert support in smaller roles.

I always find Musicals Tonight!'s recreations of lost musicals like this one fascinating; The Beauty Prize has the added pleasure of being delightfully entertaining as well. This is a must-see entry in this worthy off-off-Broadway musical series.

The Beauty Prize (In Concert)
Back Stage May 15, 2005
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Musicals Tonight!, casting by Stephen DeAngelis, at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 West 45th Street, NYC, April 26-May 8.

During the 1923-24 theatrical season, Jerome Kern wrote three musicals. The Beauty Prize, with book and lyrics by George Grossmith and P.G. Wodehouse, was produced in the West End but never reached Broadway. Now Musicals Tonight! Has provided its American premiere 82 years later.

The Beauty Prize is really a farce with music. Kern’s score is melodic and, fitted out with humorous and occasionally clever lyrics, it makes for easy listening. Songs that stood out include the haunting “For the Man I Love,” the tuneful “Honeymoon Isle,” and the witty “You Can’t Make Love by Wireless.”

On the debit side, the plot is a one-gag joke: Carol Stuart, a beautiful American heiress living in London, has had her picture submitted to a British beauty contest. She discovers on her wedding day that her prize is a husband whom she must marry within six months. He, a self-important nerd, is not the man of her dreams. In revenge, her bon vivant fiancé proposes to the next girl who comes along. The musical relates how the lovers eventually get back together and shed themselves of the entangling alliances.

Thomas Mills’ production was graced with a talented, attractive cast who did as much as possible with the dated material. The beautiful Kelly Grant as the plucky heroine showed off a lovely voice. Tall Sean Hayden made a debonair hero. Having played a similar role in Musicals Tonight!’s Jubilee, Justin Sayre took the part that author Grossmith created for himself: Flutey Warboy, the punning, witty, rich man’s secretary. Mary Jo Mecca acquitted herself well as the cynical Fannie, a widow on the make for a new husband. In the title role, Mike Masters was suitably pompous, and Annie Ramsey had fun with the Cockney shop girl, Lovey Toots, who is the hero’s second choice.

The Beauty Prize: Something New From Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse May 5, 2005
Reviewed by Michael Dale

Broadway was a pretty crowded part of town during the 1923-24 season, when 240 new productions opened. It wasn't unusual during that time to have two or three shows opening the same night. So perhaps that's why Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse opted to open their musical The Beauty Prize on London's slightly less congested West End. After all, Kern already had two other new musicals opening on Broadway that season, not to mention a return engagement of Marilynn Miller in the legendary Sally.

82 years after a very healthy London run of 214 performances, The Beauty Prize finally hits America in a lively and funny staged reading courtesy of Musicals Tonight!, the company that specializes in reviving rarely seen musicals written by some of Broadway's great masters.

For you musical theatre scholars out there, The Beauty Prize is in the style of the famous Princess Musicals, a series of intimate musical comedies created by Kern, Wodehouse and often Guy Bolton. These were among the first musicals to focus on presenting regular people in realistic plots (If not exactly plausible, they were at least possible) with songs that came out of the story. Yes, they were silly and contrived, but the material still had a certain degree of sophistication that shone through.

In this one, Wodehouse teamed up with George Grossmith, the son of a famous Gilbert and Sullivan player and an actor-manager in his own right, to write the frequently clever book and lyrics. For those who insist on knowing the plot, it deals with a young American girl looking for love in London, who keeps her wealth a secret because she wants to meet a man who'll love her for herself. She gets engaged to a fellow who is also very rich, but he's keeping his wealth a secret because he want to meet a... (I really don't have to finish that sentence, do I?). As a joke, the girl's friend secretly enters her in a photo beauty contest where first prize is the hand in marriage of a rather eccentrically nerdy bloke. (Like I said... possible, but not necessarily plausible.) Well, she wins, of course, and her "prize" arrives on the day she's supposed to marry the other guy, but it turns out there's some legal mumbo jumbo obligating her to wed the nerdy bloke. There are other assorted characters with their own little subplots and in Act II everybody winds up on an ocean liner cruise where they complicate the plot further until they all match up with proper mates somewhere on an estate on Long Island.

The score has got plenty of bouncy choral numbers which all sound great under Rick Hip-Flores' music direction, but like most of the Kern/Wodehouse collaborations, the score is highlighted by lyrics that were fresh and contemporary for their time. The catchy and funny "You Can't Make Love By Wireless" spoofs the 1920's obsessions with technology the same way a song about iPods might do so today. There's a goofy ensemble number about the pleasures of playing mah-jong and, because Wodehouse just assumed his audience read the latest good books, a song of American home-life salutes George F. Babbitt. As usual for Musicals Tonight!, director Thomas Mills stages the songs with imagination and humor, and moves the book along swift enough to get by any rough patches.

Kelly Grant and Sean Hayden make an attractive and charming leading couple, with the latter displaying some fine soprano flourishes. Mike Masters, as the "prize" makes a lovable oddball as does the comically nasal-voiced Annie Ramsey. Justin Sayre, who made such a splash in his last Musicals Tonight! appearance as the Noel Coward-ish Eric in Cole Porter and Moss Hart's Jubilee, is once again winning and extremely funny in that character type so unique to early musicals, the flamboyantly sophisticated "heterosexual" male.

The Beauty Prize only runs through May 8th, but two days later Musicals Tonight! returns with Drat! The Cat!, the short-lived Broadway musical satire from the 60's that has developed quite a cult following.

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