REVIEWS: Stop! Look! Listen!

A New Site for Irrationality: Squaresville WALLOVER
The Village Voice November 26, 2002
Reviewed by Michael Feingold

If you want proof of that last assertion, you need only drop in on the Musicals Tonight staged concert of Rodgers & Hart’s 1928 curiosity, Chee-Chee. I don’t mean that you’d enjoy Chee-Chee - no one liked it in 1928 and I doubt that anyone does now - but its peculiarity makes it an object of fascination on several fronts. First and foremost, it gives you a prime opportunity to shut up all the idiots who claim that pre-Oklahoma! Musicals did not "integrate" book and score: Chee-Chee has a loosely written script, but every note sung in that script rises directly out of its dialogue and situation. The same bozos often suggest that, in musicals’ subject matter, darker equals better, or more "mature" or some such nonsense. Well, Chee-Chee is lighthearted, almost arrogantly frivolous '20s musical, and the humor is as dark as it can get. Adultery, rape, flagellation, and castration are the principal sources of humor, with sidelines in bribery, hypocrisy, and decapitation ("We bow our heads in reverence/Lest we should feel their severance"). If Trevor Nunn had really wanted to stage a "dark" Richard Rodgers musical, he missed his chance when he chose a cheery cowboy whoop-up with one knife fight and one bad dream over this insouciant mix of Baudelairean schadenfreude, chinoiserie, and fox-trots.

The musical’s source, an ostensibly comic novel by one Charles Pettit called The Son of a Eunuch, is a prolonged lubricious snigger about what a faithful wife is willing to do to preserve her husband’s life. Summoned to join the band of castrated sages around his father, Li-Pi-Tchou runs away, taking his stunningly beautiful (and more than a little narcissistic) wife, Chee-Chee. As they bounce from one life-threatening situation to another, Chee-Chee constantly has to rescue her husband by giving herself to large, dangerous, charismatic men; Li-Pi-Tchou doesn’t get murdered, but he always seems to end up getting flogged. Herbert Field’s wooly script for the musical tightens the screws on Tchou’s misery by making his conniving father partly responsible. (The show’s paternal authority figures are all either absent, vicious, or dishonest.) Mercifully, the adaptors also invented a second couple, consisting of the Grand Eunuch’s Americanized daughter, Li Li Wee (her name is a jokey allusion to a pseudo-Hawaiian Jerome Kern song), and the Emperor’s neglected son. Outfoxing their elders, the get both happiness and the score’s best songs. Director Thomas Mills and his mostly young cast have an understandably hard time focusing Fields’ wayward dialogue, and the singing, except for the two female leads, is often below even Musicals Tonight’s modest standards. But Chee-Chee is a work so distinctive and disturbing (not to say daring) that producer Mel Miller and his hardy shoestring troupe probably deserve more praise for this improbable venture than for all the rest of their commendable work put together.

Theatre November 18, 2002
Reviewed by Marc Miller

A couple of weeks ago, at the Cabaret Convention, one of the performers - Mark Nadler, if memory serves - launched into a tirade against Chee-Chee. He had been in London recently, it seems, and treated an audience to a tab version of the 1928 Rodgers and Hart musical, a 31-performance disaster. The silence, he said, was deafening; Chee-Chee was, he assured us, a dog. Then, to prove it, he sang the principal ballad, "Moon of My Delight," mocking Lorenz Hart’s whimsical lunar lyric ("Moon of my delight, I’m gonna put a ring around you") every step of the way.

In its 74 years, Chee-Chee has garnered little respect - and, until now, not one revival. Richard Rodgers himself always insisted he never wanted to write it; he was suckered into it by Hart and librettist Herbert Fields, who were inexplicably drawn to the source material, Charles Pettit’s 1927 novel The Son of the Grand Eunuch. The notion of an all-singing, all-dancing, eunuch struck them as hilarious, and Rodgers went (he said) unwillingly along. The result broke a long string of Rodgers-Hart-Fields hits and remained a sore point for the 15-year duration of the stormy Rodgers-Hart partnership.

Well, now we get to see what all the fuss was about - after a fashion. Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight series of vest-pocket musicals-in-concert has rescued Chee-Chee from the scrap heap. Minus the sumptuous production values that Herbert Fields’ dad, Lew, gave it, and with only a piano instead of a saxophone-heavy, late-'20s audiences did. But we can plainly see an innovative and unusual piece of 1928, brazen in subject matter and truly odd in its chance-taking, character score.

We’re in the emperor’s palace in ancient Peking, where the Grand Eunuch, Li-Pi-Sao (Kati Kuroda), first servant to the king, is indulging in a little succession planning. He wasn’t always a eunuch, it seems, and he has been permitted to will his post to his son, Li-Pi-Tchou (Steven Eng). The trouble is, Li-Pi-Tchou is utterly besotted with his lovely wife, Chee-Chee (Diane Veronica Phelan), and has no wish to follow in his father’s testosterone-challenged footsteps. The young couple flees the palace in a donkey cart and wanders incognito through the countryside, where they are besieged by lusty and avaricious Tartars and Konghouses. Meanwhile, Li-Pi-Sao’s lively daughter, Li-Li-Wee (Hazel Ann Raymundo), having reached her 16th birthday, has decided to join the house of concubines - but is, instead, wooed by Prince Tao-Tee (Doug Wynn), allowing for all of those second-couple comic numbers that Rodgers and Hart felt obliged to write. Everything ends happily (in contrast to Pettit’s novel; see Peter Filichia’s November 15th TheatreMania column on this subject), though Li-Pi-Tchou is repeatedly flogged by marauding villains and Chee-Chee is cast into the Gallery of Torments, where she is lyrically menaced by Theft, Lust, Avarice, Murder, Drunkenness, and Infidelity. (It must have been an eye-popping sequence in 1928; here, in relative mufti, it doesn’t make much sense.)

Audiences coddled by the unchallenging likes of Good News and No, No, Nanette evidently didn’t know what to make of this bizarre brew of exoticism, pageantry, and castration jokes at its premiere. And while some critics applauded R&H for the adventurousness of their musical presentation, more considered Chee-Chee smutty and misconceived, with a needlessly wordy book. "Tries clumsily to be dirty and succeeds only in being tedious," griped George Jean Nathan. And in a review entitled "NASTY! NASTY!" the London Observer critic sneered, "I did not believe any act could possibly be duller than the first - until I saw the second."

It must be said that Chee-Chee is, to some extent, guilty as charged. Fields’ way of writing Chinese dialogue is generally to use words of four syllables where those of two would do, or to weigh a slang phrase down with excess verbiage: "Let me wrack my honorable brain," for instance. And "Every time you open your worthy mouth, you place your illustrious foot in it" is actually trotted out twice, to diminishing returns. (To be fair, Fields had just done something similar in his aphorism-bending libretto for A Connecticut Yankee, and audiences ate it up; so the device must have seemed like a success formula.)

But beyond its sheer wordiness and lack of genuine wit, Fields’ book contains structural curiosities. It’s an episodic as Candide, with its young lovers encountering this obstacle, then that, then this, without ever really learning anything along the way. When Li-Pi-Tchou is sentenced to a hundred lashes (twice) or when Chee-Chee willingly dispenses sexual favors to some muscled bully to get out of some scrape (thrice), the episodes are meant to be comic but come off as merely unpleasant. As for the eunuch jokes: After the novelty of seeing eunuchs in a musical comedy wears off (which takes about 10 minutes), they’re more gauche than funny. For hilarious eunuchs, you have to wait for A Funny Thing happened on the Way to the Forum.

This very Chinese story was encased in an original production that was about as Chinese as Coca-Cola, with Peggy-Ann star Helen Ford as Chee-Chee and such other Rodgers and Hart stalwarts as Philip Loeb and Betty Starbuck in prominent roles. (In this regard, Musicals Tonight has bested the original, heavily raiding Pan Asian Rep for talent.) Still, it’s hard to understand how critics or audiences - or Rodgers, for that matter - can have failed to appreciate the beauty and audacity of this score. It’s a Rodgers and Hart work that sounds, and behaves, like no other. True, there are the expected and irresistible R&H charm ballads - the bubbly descending fourths of "Dear, Oh Dear," the lilt of "I Must Love You", and the showy Hart rhymes (my favorite are "Mandarin/gander in" and "appetite/wrap it tight".

But convention goes out the window in "Better Be Good to Me," whose phrases are an unheard-of seven measures long. Li-Pi-Tchou’s "I Wake at Morning" is lush and ecstatic, more like Rodgers and Hammerstein of Flower Drum Song than the impudent Rodgers and Hart of the 1920s. Hart has naughty fun with "Just a Little Thing," which is about exactly what it sounds like in these genital-snipping plot; and when a haughty owl (and amusing Rose Bae) blocks the lovers’ path is an enchanted wood, she gets an oddball little song of her own. Most bizarrely, many of the 30-odd musical numbers are only a few bars long, the better to keep the action flowing and give the piece a through-composed composed feel. It’s suitably exotic, too: Rodgers, while not striving for an authentic Oriental sound, does experimental with Ravel-like tone clusters and chord progressions. (You won’t hear it in this production, but he put in his own little castration joke: When Li-Pi-Tchou was led off for Eunuch-izing, the orchestra originally quoted from "The Nutcracker Suite." Rodgers professed eternal gratitude to the few in the 1928 audience who got it.)

Throughout the score, and however Rodgers may have disparaged Chee-Chee in later years, you can sense the joy with which he and Hart went about upending musical-comedy convention. Very little in Chee-Chee would have been easily extractable for dance bands or radio versions, and what other R&H score contains song titles like "Impassive Buddha" or "Holy of Holies"? Not that it’s all wonderfully integrated into the text; one of Rodger’s loveliest melodies, "Singing a Love Song," is a mere scene-changer for the three minor characters. (Hart later outfitted it with a better lyric and it was successfully reworked For Ruth Ettinge as "I Still Believe in You" in Simple Simon.) Still, the authors worked harder to match song with story than most of their contemporaries did - and, of course, for sheer songwriting virtuosity, few of those contemporaries could approach Rodgers and Hart.

This Musicals Tonight production, like most, is low on budget and high on onstage talent, with especially winning work from the strong-voiced and personal Eng. He has a pretty and pert Chee-Chee in Phelan. And I don’t know whose idea it was to have gender ambiguity gets so thick, at time you forget you’re watching a woman playing an emasculated man. Thomas Mills’ staged-reading direction is, shall we say, unobtrusive, and he is at a loss as to how to get the inert book is not much worse than any other musical-comedy opus of 1928, and its fantastically inventive score is a revelation. While other, better-funded musical-revival outfits are serving up the surefire like of The Pajama Game, Miller & Co. offer a true rarity - and pretty fetching at that. See it now or risk waiting another 74 years.

Musicals Tonight!
The New Yorker November 25, 2002

The staged-concert revival of Rodgers and Hart’s 1928 Broadway flop Chee-Chee, about a young couple who flee imperial Peking, yields many lovely songs, well sung by the company, and well worth rediscovery. One fine Rodgers melody follows another, delivering superbly crafted Hart rhyme - "appetite" with "grab it tight," for instance, or "mandarin" with "goose and gander in." But the Herbert Fields book, an unwieldy Oriental pastiche, would have been better left in the attic. (14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th Street 362-5620. Closes November. 24.)

Chee-Chee in Concert
Back Stage December 13, 2002
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Musicals Tonight was faithful to its mission in presenting the first performance in 74 years of Rodgers and Hart’s Chee-Chee. A quick failure in 1928, Chee-Chee may have been ahead of its time with its wicked satire, enough musical numbers to be considered through-composed - although there is dialogue by Herbert Fields - and short, quick songs that delineate character, but wouldn’t stand on their own.

Although Thomas Mills’ staging had beautiful costumes courtesy of the TDF-Costume Collection and most satisfactory casting, it would be hard to make a definite judgment from a concert reading. Chee-Chee is neither the main character nor does she even enter for the first half-hour. The plotting (castration, infidelity, cross-dressing, hypocrisy, etc.) in the 19th-century China is most outré. With only a handful of top-drawer songs, the unfamiliar score takes time to become familiar, though the show does have a charm all its own.

The convoluted on-the-road plot finds our hero, Li-Pi-Tchou, who has been informed by his father, The Grand Eunuch (don’t ask), that he has been chosen to follow him in that august position, fleeing with beautiful, loving wife Chee-Chee. Simultaneously, the emperor’s son, Price Tao-Tee, is refused across to his father and runs off with the Grand Eunuch’s just-turned-16-year-old daughter, Li-Li-Wee.

The vivacious Hazel Anne Raymundo (as Li-Li-Wee) and the genial Doug Wynn (as the Prince) had the best songs in their three duets: "Dear, Oh Dear," "Better Be Good to Me," and "Moon of My Delight." As the Grand Eunuch’s son, Steven Eng sang two lovely ballads, "I Wake At Morning" and "I Must Love You," the latter a duet with the beautiful Diane Veronica Phelan (as Chee-Chee). Kati Kuroda as the Grand Eunuch, Jerry Rago as the Tarter Chief, Colin Stokes as the Konghouse Leader, and Yasu Suzuki as a greedy monk were most entertaining.

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