REVIEWS: By the Beautiful Sea

By The Beautiful Sea June 16th, 1999
Reviewed by Martin Denton)

Lovers of the musical theatre will not want to miss By the Beautiful Sea, now being presented in a staged concert version by Mel Miller’s Musical! Tonight. This musical comedy, with book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, lyrics by Ms. Fields, and music by Arthur Schwartz, has been more or less forgotten since it ran on Broadway in 1954; although it finds none of its illustrious authors at his or her best, it is nevertheless a sturdy and pleasant entertainment. By the Beautiful Sea is by no means a lost classic -- this is not a show worthy of a full-scale revival -- but it’s a potent example of the golden age of American musical comedy. And Mr. Miller’s modest production, lovingly staged and enthusiastically performed, provides us with a chance to see what it looked and sounded like.

The (very slight) story, set in New York in 1907, concerns Lottie Gibson, a big-hearted, middle-aged vaudevillian who operates a theatrical boardinghouse in Coney Island. Lottie has her eye on Shakespearean actor Dennis Emery, but just as she has won him over his long-lost daughter, Betsy, appears on the scene. Further complications arise when Lottie discovers that her father has invested all of her money in one of the attractions on the nearby Midway. All is efficiently -- if hurriedly -- resolved before the final curtain comes down, with Lottie solvent and engaged, and Betsy neatly matched with a singing waiter named Mickey to boot.

The book is flimsy and inconsequential: By the Beautiful Sea feels more like a musical comedy of the 1920s than the 1950s. It’s mostly an excuse for a succession of set pieces for its stars, who in the original production were the reigning Queen of Broadway Shirley Booth and prominent operetta leading man Wilbur Evans. For Ms. Booth (as Lottie), Mr. Schwartz and Ms. Fields wrote a couple of low-key raunchy comic numbers, "I’d Rather Wake Up By Myself" and "Please Don’t Send Me Down a Baby Brother." For Mr. Evans (as Dennis), they provided a full-voiced ballad called "More Love Than Your Love" as well as a lesser love song, "Alone Too Long." The score also includes a number of specialties for some of the supporting players, including a rousing charmer with an almost Harburg-ian lyric called "Happy Habit," sung by Lottie’s black maid Ruby, and the spirited, silly "Tuscaloosa," performed by a pair of singing and dancing waiters.

As you can see, there’s nothing you’ve ever heard of here: it’s pleasant but insubstantial material. In the hands of talented performers, though, it can really score; happily, that’s just what happens in this production, on several occasions. The high point is undoubtedly "Tuscaloosa," with hoofers Patrick Boyd and Liam Burke effortlessly executing a sweet ‘n’ easy comic soft-shoe that is pure delight. Amy Phillips has fun with "Happy Habit," and Perry Ojeda, wearing a goofy expression and affecting a thick Brooklynese accent, does well with Mickey’s "Old Enough to Love." Kip Driver and Andrew Gitzy do excellent work in a variety of roles and musical numbers.

Sam Freed acts the role of Dennis well, and reveals a fine tenor voice in both of his big ballads. Cabaret favorite KT Sullivan is at her best on the ballads too; she brings lots of personality to the book and the specialty numbers but she never really makes them her own -- not surprising given the fact that they were built to order for one of our theatre’s greatest singing comediennes, Shirley Booth. She is, nevertheless, an ingratiating presence, and brings real star quality to the production.

Which is, of course, precisely what’s called for: a show like By the Beautiful Sea -- which ran, incidentally, for about nine months back in 1954 -- exists solely to allow some talented people to entertain us for a couple of hours. For better or for worse, they don’t write shows like this anymore. Mel Miller’s revival gives us a happy chance to go back to that less demanding time and enjoy the kind of theatre that our parents and grandparents once did.

An Old-Fashioned Souvenir From the Sea
Newsday Theatre Review June 23, 1999
Reviewed by Aileen Jacobson

Coney Island. Vaudeville. 1907. Herbert and Dorothy Fields. Yes, we are in the land of concert revivals of delightful old musicals that, mostly, don’t stand a chance of a full-blown restoration. City Center’s Encores! Series has brought the form high-profile respectability.

Now, on a far more shoestring budget but sporting virtually the same level of performing talent, producer Mel Miller and his Musicals Tonight company have mounted a totally satisfying staged concert version of By the Beautiful Sea. The 1954 musical, which garnered glowing reviews for its leading lady, Shirley Booth, lasted 270 performances but didn’t make money.

No less a presence than KT Sullivan, the cabaret diva who has starred on Broadway in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Off-Broadway in Splendora, is playing Booth’s role, one Lottie Gibson. Gibson, the owner of a theatrical boarding house, is a vaudeville performer in love with a Shakespearean actor who has ex-wife, family and financial problems.

Looking like a delectable cream puff, delivering lines with offhand pizzazz and singing in her usual splendid voice, Sullivan is beautifully suited to this bauble of a play. Her love interest is played by theatre veteran Sam Freed, whose use of reading glasses to focus on his script (cast members all carry them, except when they’re dancing or engaged in romantic scenes) fits in nicely with his character’s intellectual Bardian bent.

The rest of the 17-member cast is made up of other experienced actors and bright newcomers, including Perry Laylon Ojeda, who this season played Gabey in the Broadway production of On The Town and also had a leading role in the Encores! Babes in Arms.

Thomas Mills brings great charm to his direction and staging of By the Beautiful Sea. The show’s tap choreographer, Patrick Boyd and Liam Burke, also perform winningly in some nifty production numbers, and musical director Michael Levine provides backstage piano accompaniment.

There’s no room for an onstage orchestra here, as at City Center, and the set consists largely of an American flag, to suggest a July 4th celebration, and cardboard signs. A daredevil parachute jump Lottie undertakes to raise money for her Romeo is depicted by a miniature figure on a string. But, hey, even Broadway’s Titanic used a similar trick.

With spirited music by Arthur Schwartz and snappy lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who collaborated with her brother on the meandering book), the score includes the well-known "In The Good Old Summertime," which Sullivan sings in counterpoint to the cast’s rendition of the still-obscure "Coney Island Boat." A male quartet delivers the opening "Mona From Arizona." and the whole company gets involved in a rousing "Hooray For George III." Amy Jo Phillips, playing a black maid named Ruby with as little stereotypical fuss as possible, stands out in two novelty songs, "Happy Habit" and "If the Devil Answers, Hang Up!" Other tunes include a lovely ballad, "Alone Too Long," and a funny vaudeville skit-song, "Please Don’t Send Me Down a Baby Brother," which Sullivan performs in a bonnet and fake short legs. Though the play strikes some serious notes about parenting, its heart is stuck in rosy old-fashioned motifs ripe for this kind of loving resurrection.

By the Beautiful Sea
Back Stage June 25- July 1, 1999
Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Shirley Booth was on a roll when this show opened in 1954, in the previous four years having won both the Tony and the Oscar for the seriously dramatic Come Back, Little Sheeba, plus proving her command of Broadway musical comedy with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The success of that uneven show set at the turn of the century induced virtually the same creative team -- Arthur Schwartz and Herbert and Dorothy Fields -- to put on this second, and lesser, musical about fin-de-siecle Brooklyn. It was Booth, in the role of a Coney Island rooming-house owner who also tours in vaudeville, who lifted the whole enterprise above the banal. This staged reading from the irrepressible Musicals Tonight, a sort of poor man’s "Encores!" lets us in on exactly how that could happen.

KT Sullivan charmingly sashays through the Booth role as if she didn’t know that Schwartz’s songs, Dorothy’s lyrics, and both Fieldses’ book were far from their best. Sullivan creates a character from a mere Gibson Girl line drawing, and the illusion of a plot from a series of drawing-room encounters among the boardinghouse denizens and their various vaudeville turns. She infuses pallid songs (the "By the Beautiful Sea" number, you know, isn’t from this show) with a shimmer that leads the cast and audience into thinking we’re spending a day (and night) at a long-ago beach.

Director Thomas Mills, musical director Michael Levine and a committed cast, on sheer energy and little budget (almost no set but chairs and borrowed period costumes) have ably abetted this transformation of the tarnished jewel box of the Lamb’s Theatre -- which must somehow be saved from its threatened extinction! In this intimate setting Perry Laylon Ojeda, the show’s juvenile lead, projects a major charisma that was lost in the Gershwin when he was On the Town.

Smooth sailing - By the Beautiful Sea
Off-Off Broadway Review July 22nd, 1999
Review by Doug DeVita

There is a select type of musical that fills a special niche: the star vehicle. Written and produced for the talents of a particular personality, it is meant to entertain, run as long as the performer can keep it open profitably, and then disappear to make room for the next star vehicle. First produced in 1954, By the Beautiful Sea ran six months on the box-office appeal of comedienne Shirley Booth, slipping into a hazy oblivion after it closed. It’s not hard to understand why. The book, expressly tailored to Booth’s brassy personality by the brother and sister team Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was dated and silly nonsense even in 1954, and impossible to make palatable without a star of equally idiosyncratic magnitude. Taking place on Coney Island in 1907, the story clumps from one ridiculous cliché to another as Lottie Gibson, a brash vaudeville performer, attempts to snare herself a rather over-refined leading man, Shakespearean actor Dennis Emory.

Surrounded by a colorful grab-bag of all-singing, all-dancing supporting characters, including Emory’s spiteful daughter Betsy, Lottie overcomes all hurdles with ease and timing possible only in musical comedy. Luckily, the idiotic goings-on are interrupted with merciful regularity by a superior Arthur Schwartz score that, like our heroine, triumphs over the book with melodic, show-biz pizzazz.

Happily, Musicals Tonight’s concert version of By the Beautiful Sea delivered the two things desperately needed to make the show work -- a well-sung score and a star turn by a glamorous, magnetic personality. As Lottie, cabaret legend KT Sullivan bubbled, glowed, and effortlessly breathed sunny new life into the dreary old material. As she slinked across the stage with a healthy, pie-eyed sensuality, her lethal sense of comic timing made the hoary one-liners seem freshly minted and side-splittingly funny. Her fabulous voice stopped the show cold in her comic numbers, "I’d Rather Wake Up By Myself" and the superfluous but funny "Please Don’t Send Me Down A Baby Brother."

Smartly directed by Thomas Mills, Sullivan was ably supported by a slyly effervescent production that capitalized on the evening’s strong points: its score, its star, and its winning ensemble of top-notch talent. Under Michael Levine’s razzle-dazzle musical supervision, Schwartz’s enchanting mix of waltzes, rags, barbershop quartets, ballads and comedy turns exploded with gloriously old-fashioned energy and drive. As for individual performances, Sam Freed brought intelligence and warmth to Dennis Emory, while Marisa Bela made the bratty Betsy a charming, well-sung delight. Amy Jo Phillips, exuberant as Lottie’s housekeeper Ruby, nearly stole the show with her two numbers, and Patrick Boyd and Liam Burke stopped everything a fifth time with their breezy soft-shoe challenge dance. Perry Ojeda as a love-struck singing waiter, Kendall March as a perpetually tipsy neighbor, Louisa Flaningam as Emory’s scheming ex-wife, and Andrew Gitzy as a carnival barker all contributed memorable turns, as did Randi Megibow, Brooke Moriber, and Lisa Trader as a trio of man-hungry sisters.

Produced with obvious affection for the material, this revival was deft, entertaining glimpse at a curiosity from the golden age of the Broadway musical, and proves Musicals Tonight worthy competition to the bigger, better-funded City Center Encores. Yay! (Also featuring Stephen Carter Hicks, Kip Driver, Justin Edmund, and Ron Savin. Lighting by Lita Riddock.)

Theatre July 6, 1999
Reviewed by Don Dewey

This is Don Dewey from the theatre.

Energy and earnestness are hardly the only qualities we want from the stage. We’ve all seen enough community theatre productions of Romeo and Juliet where the performers act as though they are on uppers, the text is rendered as if for the first time in the western world, and the results are.... well, embarrassing. But energy and earnestness can also be refreshing when the going standard is snicker, sneer and snort. Add some very professional players and an imaginative director, and you might end up with something like The Lamb’s Theatre revival of the 1950s musical By the Beautiful Sea.

There have never been any street demonstrations demanding another look at the Dorothy Fields-Arthur Schwartz fluff about the hectic doings around a Coney Island boarding house at the turn of the century. But producer Mel Miller has been presenting chestnuts of the kind with little regard for anything but his own taste in Broadway nostalgia and the confidence that they don’t have to be restricted to the lounges of senior citizens’ homes.

In the specific case of By the Beautiful Sea, he has had the dexterous assistance of director Thomas Mills and a Broadway-experienced cast headed by KT Sullivan, Sam Freed, and Kendall March. Some of the tunes -- most notably "Alone Too Long" -- even make it clear that poignant ballads weren’t the exclusive province of Rodgers and Hart back in the heyday of the stage musical.

If it’s too late for you to catch By the Beautiful Sea, you might be contact The Lamb’s Theatre at 130 West 44th Street for a schedule of next season’s musical revivals.

This is Don Dewey.

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