REVIEWS: Jubilee

Jubilee Reviews October 6, 2004
Reviewed by Martin Denton

With Jubilee, Musicals Tonight! settles into its seventh season and third home (at the 45th Street Theatre, following a long stint at the 14th Street Y). Producer Mel Miller's vision is still the same: to mount concert-style revivals of lesser-known musicals, more or less unabridged and unadapted, and to showcase Broadway-caliber talent in some of the leading roles, all at off-off-Broadway prices. Devotees and followers of this series should not be disappointed by this latest presentation.

Jubilee was written in 1935 by Cole Porter (music and lyrics) and Moss Hart (book) while they sailed around the world; it's as larky a show as either ever came up with, filled with winking caricatures of pals like Noel Coward and Elsa Maxwell plus lots of inside and/or campy references to a slew of other famous people, from Countess DeFrasso to Neysa McMein. (One of the questions that kept popping into my head as I watched this revival was: How many still living will recognize all the names that Porter and Hart continually drop?)

The story of Jubilee concerns four members of a royal family (not England's; Ruritania's, perhaps?) who, bored with their duties, decide to run away from home. The King, a gentle and simple-minded fellow, wants to spend time practicing his "string tricks" and winds up becoming stooge-of-the-moment to Fabulous Party Giver Eva Standing. The Queen, an earthy dowager, is interested in making the acquaintance of hunky movie star Charles Rausmiller, who plays a Tarzan-like character called Mowgli on the screen; she says it's because she wants him to help her with the breast stroke. The Prince is similarly nursing an infatuation with American singer/dancer Karen O'Kane, who is the hit of Cafe Martinique thanks to her beguiling number "Begin the Beguine." And the Princess desires to spend time in the company of Eric Dare, the world famous actor-writer-singer-director-producer-Renaissance Man of the Theatre.

Hart and especially Porter have a hoot sending up Maxwell, Coward, and Johnny Weismuller. The score, which holds up much better than Hart's long and talky book, has more of Porter's trademark comic list songs than usual, several of which appear to have been written for his own enjoyment. There are also some grand pastiches here, including two Coward takeoffs, "The Kling-Kling Bird" and, more successfully, the wittily simple-minded "When Love Comes Your Way." The most famous song in the score, "Begin the Beguine," is also meant in jest -- witness this piece of the lyric, for example:

I'm with you once more under the stars
And down by the shore an orchestra's playing,
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine.

But the melody is so infectious and danceable that it can't help but be the show's hit tune; it's nice to hear it performed live in the theatre. Ditto "Just One of Those Things," a quintessential Porter composition about sophisticates falling out of love. Here he talks about "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings"; as Sondheim has noted, nobody else could get away with it, but Porter seemed to live it.

Which is why the confectionary score for Jubilee, of which these are just some of the highlights, is so worth having performed. Jubilee is stronger than lots of musicals of its era, but its requirements -- eight excellent performers capable of delivering star turns, plus numerous and elaborate sets and costumes -- mean that we won't be seeing it on Broadway anytime soon. Enjoy its considerable charms, then, in unamplified glory in this production; and forgive the unevenness.

For there are indeed things that could be improved (and some surely will be during Jubilee's run; I saw the second performance). Thomas Mills' staging and choreography manages to be both haphazard and routine -- frequent auditors of the Musicals Tonight! shows are going to recognize all the moves, but not necessarily with particular affection. The casting also appears to be uneven, with only a few of the leads really hitting their marks -- the ones who fare best are Ed Schiff as the King, Melissa Lone as the Princess, Keith Gerchak as the Prince, and Sebastian La Cause as Mowgli (though he's defeated by the non-costuming convention of the show; the joke of the Sophie Tucker-ish monarch admiring his rippling muscles makes little sense when he's clad in a polo shirt and slacks). Leslie Ann Hendricks makes "Begin the Beguine" the evening's musical highlight, but she doesn't seem to have a take on "Just One of Those Things" yet -- that may come with time. Patti Perkins (Queen), Cynthia Collins (Eva), and Justin Sayre (Eric) all flounder, seemingly miscast in the three roles that are, admittedly, the toughest, mainly because their prototypes haven't been around for so very many decades. But Michael L. Walker, as a mischievous younger prince plus numerous other ensemble roles, has a most engaging presence; and Michael Shane Ellis serves as sturdy anchor to the narrative as the Prime Minister.

Part of me wanted Miller to cut some of the extraneous-feeling text -- Hart's libretto is long; have I said that already? -- but part of me is grateful to get an unexpurgated Jubilee, warts and all, to savor and appreciate some 69 years after the fact. That's always been the most valuable service Musicals Tonight! provides to the theatre community. We want them to keep doing it: the season ahead promises rare looks at The Chocolate Soldier and The Apple Tree, plus the American premiere (!) of a show by Jerome Kern and P.G. Wodehouse.

Jubilee in Concert
Back Stage October 24, 2004
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Musicals Tonight!’s move to the 45th Street Theatre has proven fortuitous: The acoustics are fantastic for singing with every word coming through with crystal clarity under Rick Hip-Flores’ musical direction. Thomas Mills’ concert revival of the 1935 Cole Porter-Moss Hart collaboration Jubilee is the most sophisticated production he has done to date for Musicals Tonight! The casting and the design elements have also risen to a new level.

The reason why Jubilee isn’t revived more often, even though it has one of Porter’s most ingenious scores, is that it is extremely topical, requiring a familiarity with ‘30s gossip and celebrities. Inspired by the 25th Jubilee of the reign of King George V and Queen Mary, Hart’s plot concerns a royal family in an unnamed anglicized country who, while fleeing a possible revolution, act out their fantasies.

Porter’s score is one of his most eclectic, including parodies of Gilbert and Sullivan, Cowardesque patter, music-hall ballads, jazz rhythms, and South Sea melodies. Among its gems are the standards "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things," the witty "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and "A Picture of Me Without You," and the romantic ballads "Why Shouldn’t I?" and "When Love Comes Your Way." The once famous "Me and Marie" makes you want to sing along.

Among the memorable performances were Justin Sayre’s Noel Coward parody, Cindy Collins’ Elsa Maxwell satire, and Sebastian La Cause’s self-effacing Hollywood swimming star nicknamed Mowgli (lampooning Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller). As nightclub singer Karen Kane, Leslie Ann Hendricks gave beautiful renditions of the show’s most famous songs. As the royal family, Ed Schiff, Patti Perkins, Melissa Lone, and Keith Gerchak were suitably aristocratic, with Perkins giving the most entertaining performance. Michael Shane Ellis and Chris VanHoy, who showed up in numerous roles, were both versatile and amusing.

Lost and found - Jubilee
Off-Off Broadway March, 2001
Reviewed by Seth Bisen-Hersh

Jubilee originally opened in 1935; almost seven decades later, Musicals Tonight! presented the show as the opener of its new season in its new Midtown location. The show was charming and witty, if quite long (almost three hours).

The plot of Jubilee revolves around a royal family; it is one week before the annual jubilee, and preparations are underway. The young Prince Peter (Raymond Baynard) and his cousin Prince Rudolph (Michael I. Walker) decide they would like to go to see Radio City Music Hall; thus, they fake a threat to the family demanding they abandon the castle or else. Thinking revolutionaries are threatening to overthrow the throne, the family is ordered by the Prime Minister (Michael Shane Ellis) to go to their getaway at Feathermore Castle.

The family has other plans. They have been longing to live like normal people, and decide to pretend to be the Smiths. All four go on adventures to do things they have always wanted to do: the King (Ed Schiff) practices his rope trick in the municipal park and meets socialite Eva (Cynthia Collins), who asks him to perform at her big party. The Queen (Patti Perkins) goes to view an American movie star, Mowgli (Sebastian La Cause), and he gives her swimming lessons. The Princess (Melissa Lone) falls in love with the renowned playwright, Eric Dare (Justin Sayre). Finally, the Prince (Keith Gerchak) becomes enamored with a singer, Karen (Leslie Ann Hendricks).

Chaos ensues when it is discovered they are missing, and they are forced to Feathermore, where they are found. However, they decide to abdicate and escape with their new friends, and more chaos ensues. When it is revealed that the young Prince and nephew staged the warning of revolution, the royal family reluctantly return to the palace and give up their new lives.

The show had a slow start, but soon picked up. The dialog is amusing and entertaining for the most part, although there was a lot of extraneous chatter. The show might be long, but it usually entertained, and the pace was mostly fluid and fast. This is one of Porter’s stronger scores, if not his strongest. It features his wit at his best; there are incessant rhymes, and a lot of them are clever rhymes with contemporaries of the day ("Roosevelt" and "felt"; "able" and "Gable"). The score is hummable and fun as well. The highlights include the luscious ballad "Why Shouldn’t I," the Gilbert and Sullivan-like patter song "The Kling-Kling Bird," the operatic "When Loves Come Your Way," the quaint "A Picture of Me Without You," and the standards "Begin the Beguine" and "Just One of Those Things."

The actors were well-trained and talented. The singing was beautifully blended. The standouts included the following: Patti Perkins was a regal queen with a powerful belt; Sebastian La Cause was a macho but sensitive movie star; Justin Sayre had a charming and effervescent tenor; and Melissa Lone possessed a versatile singing palette, switching from belt to mix to head with ease.

Thomas Mills’s direction and choreography were impressive, as usual, if a bit routine. The staging never felt cramped even though the stage was half the size of the old venue. There was some diversity in the choreography, and there was clever use of the binders (which the actors read their lines from, since they have little rehearsal time). Stan Perlman’s scenic design included artistic placards to denote each scene change.

Overall, Jubilee was indeed a jubilee. It is always a pleasure to see how far the American musical has come. Musicals Tonight! continues to present revivals with top-notch talent.


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