REVIEWS: Leave It To Me

Leave It to Me Review March 20th, 2001
Reviewed by Martin Denton

Mel Miller’s Musical Tonight once again hits a bull’s eye with Leave It to Me, a concert-style revival of one of the hits of the 1938-39 Broadway season. As usual, Miller gives us a delightfully entertaining show, as well as a fascinating lesson in musical theatre history. Fanatics as well as just plain fans of the Broadway musical are in for a treat.

Leave It to Me boasted no fewer than four stars when it opened more than sixty years ago: Victor Moore (as Alonzo "Stinky" Goodhue, the reluctant newly-appointed American Ambassador to the Soviet Union), Sophie Tucker (as his domineering wife, whose $95,000 donation to the Democratic Party snared her husband his post), William Gaxton (as smooth-talking newspaperman Buckley Joyce Thomas, enlisted by Goodhue to get him recalled so that he can return home), and Tamara (as Colette, Buck’s fellow reporter and love interest). And the show served to introduce another star, who became arguably more famous than any of them: Mary Martin had the smaller role of Dolly, plaything of both Buck and his employer, and stopped the show singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" in a remote Siberian railroad station.

The terrific thing about Leave It to Me’s book, written by Bella and Samuel Spewack of Boy Meets Girl fame, is how neatly it accommodates the requirements of its above-the title talent while still holding up comfortably as a well-crafted screwball comedy. The Spewacks found room for various far-fetched predicaments in which to entangle the hapless Goodhue, including a hilarious scene in which he is required to decode a secret message from Secretary of State Cordell Hull. There’s also plenty of shady business for suave Buck Thomas to get embroiled in, as well as an obligatory (and messy) love triangle from which he has to extricate himself. The script is also filled with topical, satirical material that -- heard sixty years later -- is at once refreshing and enlightening. For example, Goodhue initially attempts to get himself recalled by kicking the German Ambassador, eliciting this response:

    British Ambassador: Britain views your deed with pride and alarm, congratulates and condemns you, and will now perform its breathtaking triple loop, suspended by a single wire, sitting in a tub of water.
    Goodhue: Did you say something?
    British Ambassador: We’ll issue a statement in the morning, depending on which way the wind blows.

(Note the Leave It to Me opened just two months after Hitler annexed Czechoslovakia and Britain looked the other way.)

And could the Spewacks have ever guessed the kind of laugh Mrs. Goodhue would get from a 21st century audience with a line like "Why haven’t I got nine children like the Kennedys?"

I’ve been focusing on Leave It to Me’s book because it’s the real find in this production; Cole Porter’s score, written while he was still recovering from a punishing riding accident, in not up to standard. "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" is the only genuinely familiar song; "Get Out of Town," "most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love," "Tomorrow," and "From Now On" are pleasant if not especially distinctive. The show-stoppers of this production are "Information, Please," a breezy duet for Colette and Goodhue, and "I Want To Go Home," Goodhue’s second act comic tour de force. This is, at least in part, attributable to Kenny Morris’ superb performance as the bumbling but lovable Goodhue.

Barbara McCulloh acts stylishly and sings beautifully as Colette. But Michael Scott (Buck) and Robin Baxter (Mrs. Goodhue) haven’t quite nailed their characters yet, and Jamie Day is off-track as Dolly, doing a Jean Hagen-ish dumb blonde instead of the fresh faced (and fresh-voiced) naïf that Mary martin surly was. Musicals Tonight regulars Thomas Mills (director) and Mark Hartman (musical director) do their usual excellent work here, though Mills seems to have missed an obvious comic opportunity in not swathing his "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" chorus in furs.

Quibbling aside, though, Leave It to Me -- like all the Musicals Tonight shows -- is a remarkable living document of theatre history. A musical this topical and star-heavy almost certainly could not be successfully revived in a full-scale production nowadays. But the intimate, elegant, relaxed backward glances that these revivals provide are just what the doctor ordered.

To Russia, with Music
The New York Post March 22nd, 2001
Reviewed by Donald Lyons

In 1938, Leave It to Me was a hit, running for 291 performances.

With book by Bella and Samuel Spewack and lyrics by Cole Porter, it marked the first collaboration by the trio, who produced the great Kiss Me, Kate in 1948. It was a marriage made in Sardi’s.

Now it’s being done at Musicals Tonight, a downtown, shoestring answer to Encores.

The story is some concoction about a naïve Kansas businessman who is reluctantly appointed ambassador to Moscow; his eager wife sees social opportunity, singing "Taking the Steppes to Russia."

To Moscow with his go cynical reporter Buck, gold-digger Dolly, and French reporter Colette. (Don’t ask.)

Popping up with rhyme but no reason are "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" (which Dolly croons to prisoners in Siberia -- huh?) and a half serious hymn to Kansas called "I Want to Go Home."

It has some ebullient charms: Kenny Morris as the ambassador; Jamie Day gives "My Heart" some oomph though she is not especially gold-diggerish at all. There’s much room for improvement. There’s no need to preserve every line of the dreary Spewack book. It’s supposed to be a re-creation, not an embalming.

Also, a note about the script: Stalin’s Russia in 1938 is treated with affection as an eccentric, lovably odd place. Says something about Broadway of the time.

Leave It to Musicals Maven Mel Miller March 2001
Reviewed by Peter Filichia

New York - Had a nice chat with Mel Miller, the one-man band known as Musicals Tonight which has presented staged readings of musicals from the ‘20s (Dearest Enemy), ‘30s (I Married an Angel), ‘40s (Look Ma, I’m Dancin’, which got recorded), ‘50s (Goldilocks, which yielded a page one Sunday New York Times story), ‘60s (Foxy, recorded and now being mixed), and ‘70s (King of Hearts).

Now he’s revisiting the ‘30s with Leave It to Me, the 1938 Cole Porter show. Though Sam and Bella Spewack’s book does sound more contemporary than that: A woman donates a ton of money to a presidential campaign so that her husband can become an ambassador.

It’s the show that made Mary Martin a star, thanks to "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." Other well-known Porter songs included "Get out of Town," "Tomorrow," and "Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love."

Miller was bubbling over with enthusiasm over the last-named. "You want to hear a nice irony?" he asked. "Robin Baxter, who appeared in my first show, Let It Ride, is singing ‘Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love’ in this one. Last year, she appeared in another Cole Porter show, Red, Hot and Blue at Goodspeed, where she sang the same song. But they interpolated it there. Here, it’s the actual song from the actual show, so she’s finally getting to do it right," he added with a wild burst of laugh.

Not that Miller isn’t above making a change in Leave It to Me. "But only a little one," he insisted. "There’s a part for a Prince Tomashevsky, a dethroned Russian noble. We just couldn’t find anyone to fit the bill. But then I noticed Lois Ann Saunders, who had this regal bearing. So we’ve made her Princess Tomashevsky. I hope the purists don’t drive me crazy about it."

I doubt they will, and told his so. But Miller does get a hard-core musical-loving audience. "Most of them are very old, which is why we start at 7 at night -- so they can get home and get to bed earlier," he admitted. "When they ask me about a senior discount, I tell them, ‘We charge extra for seniors!’ One woman who came in a wheelchair said she didn’t think she should pay because, after all, she brought her own chair." And then he gives out with another laugh-eruption deep from his gullet.

Miller uses his own money and doesn’t mind losing it. "But I’m losing less," he crowed. "I think we might even break even with this one!"

What’s he’d really like to do is That’s the Ticket, the 1948 out-of-town closing with a score by Harold (I Can Get It for You Wholesale) Rome, book by those Casablanca collaborators Julius and Philip Epstein, and direction (but not choreography!) by Jerome Robbins.

"The Lincoln Center Library had Act One of it, but not Act Two," Miller reported. "But I sure liked what I read of Act One. I got in touch with Harold Rome’s son Josh, who told me all his father’s stuff had been given to Yale. I went up there, and found the entire score. Now all I needed was the script to Act Two."

Miller got in touch with the Epstein Brothers’ lawyer, but found him no help. On a whim, he called George S. Irving -- "who appeared in my So Long, 174th Street," he noted. "George told me that the last time he’d visited Jerome Robbins, that he saw the script of That’s the Ticket in his house.

Of course Robbins had since died, so Miller couldn’t just call up the legendary director-choreographer and ask for a copy. But he did learn that Robbins’ papers had been donated to the Billy Rose Collection, so he gave them a call.

"This lovely lady in the dance department said that she had plenty of boxes of Robbins’ material right there in her office, and the she’d be willing to take a look," he said. "The first box she opened, there it was."

Still, that didn’t mean Miller had permission to take the script. So he called around to see if there were any Epstein heirs who might grant permission. Ray Evans, one of the Let it Ride authors, knew that two sons lived in Massachusetts and California. Miller found them, and they faxed the library and okayed that a photocopy be made for him.

"Now the script is at the Robbins’ estate," he said, "because they want to excise everything he wrote in the margins."

If he and we live long enough, we may all see That’s the Ticket! Maybe Break It Up, too.

"Well," he said, "I was reading Mel Torme’s autobiography, because I was always such a fan of his. And he mentioned the musical he wrote with Bob Wells and Charles (Christine) Peck in 1950, which played in Matunuck, Rhode Island, and never got any further. I’ve since been able to get 12 of the songs. Do you know where I can get a script?"

Leave it to Miller to find one, though. Meanwhile, Leave It to Me plays March 20th-April 1st at the 14th St. Y, 344 East 14th St., New York City. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 PM, Wednesdays at 2 and 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 7 PM, Saturdays at 2 and 7 PM, Sundays at 2 and 7 PM. Tickets cost $17. Call (212) 362-0713.

Good, Bad, and Recycled, Musicals Are What’s Going On
Tuner's Salad
The Village Voice April 3rd, 2001
Reviewed by Michael Feingold

…Ten years before that most famous of Porter triumphs, in 1938, he collaborated with the same playwright spouses, Sam and Bella Spewack, on a far sillier and looser musical with surprisingly dark undertones, Leave It to Me (Musicals Tonight, 14th Street Y). Here the outsider-hero is a blank-brained Kansas simp whose socially ambitious wife has gotten hem named the ambassador to Moscow by dumping money in FDR’s reelection campaign. Their lives got tangled with those of a smart-aleck newshound whose media-mogul boss also craves the ambassadorial post, a goal the newshound abets so he can romp undisturbed with the mogul’s mistress. Naturally, arrival in Moscow turns everybody’s plans upside down ; The news-sharpie’s schemes to get the simp recalled backfire, turning him into a Soviet hero instead; meantime the sharpie falls for a female correspondent; the mogul’s tootsie winds up on the Trans-Siberian Railway. The cartoonlike, loosely strung (but not incoherent) script gave off flickers of wit even at this downtown staged-concert series’ customary laggard pace. Porter’s score, despite the series’ usual so-so singing (Jamie Day and Barbara McCulloh expected), gave off a good deal more, demonstrating again that the scores of old shows should be left undoctored in revival. Restoring three cut numbers, Musicals Tonight deleted only one necessary item, the topical "patter" to the up-tempo "Tomorrow." And they perform unmiked. We owe them gratitude: Who knew that Cole Porter could write a first-act finale in strict counterpoint to the "Internationale"?

Leave It to Me in Concert
Back Stage April 6th, 2001
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

A decade before Cole Porter and book writers Sam and Bella Spewack created Kiss Me, Kate, they wrote Leave It to Me, an old fashioned musical comedy with corny gag, clever songs, and farcical plot, but also a political satire on diplomacy and Bolshevism. Alas, the references to 1930s politics can’t be updated, but seem very dated now.

Musicals Tonight’s revival was diverting and pleasant, but no lost masterpiece. Thomas Mills’ direction and choreography kept the show moving at a snappy pace, with the jokes evenly timed. This revival also restored songs cut from the original production, including the witty "When the he Stops Laying," and the melodic finale, "Wild Wedding Bells." Mark Hartman was responsible for the lilting musical direction, as well as the vocal and dance arrangements.

The plot is twofold: Reporter Buck Thomas wants to help his boss get named ambassador to the Soviet Union, while Alonzo P. Goodhue, the unwillingly named new Ambassador (due to his wife’s generosity to Roosevelt’s reelection campaign), hopes to be recalled home to his beloved Topeka.

As the hero’s Parisian girlfriend, Barbara McCulloh was credibly French, particularly in the bluesy "Get Out of Town," as well as "Information, Please," another restored song. Robin Baxter, as Goodhue’s vulgar wife, vivaciously put over "Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love" and "Tomorrow (Your Troubles’ll Be Done)." Wisely avoiding comparison to Mary Martin’s famous striptease while singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," Jamie Day instead suggested all the blonde Hollywood starlets of the ‘50s.

Disappointingly, the male leads failed to shine. As the ambitious reporter, Michael Scott was decidedly colorless, while Kenny Morris’ Ambassador Goodhue wasn’t so much a goof as a cipher. Gordon Connell, as Thomas’ boss, gave a hammy performance of a petty tyrant. Standing out from the ensemble, John Wasiniak proved his versatility by doing about a dozen accents in as many roles.

Out with the new, in with the old - Leave It to Me
Off-Off Broadway March, 2001
Reviewed by Adrienne Onofri

With his sexually suggestive and name-dropping lyrics, Cole Porter was ahead of his time. But was any of his work as foresighted as Leave It to Me? The plot revolves around a simpleton with pronunciation difficulties and a fondness for nicknames whose financial assets and family connections secure him a high government position; he’s in over his head on the job, and others seem to do the work for him.

That inauspicious leader would be Alonzo "Stinky" Goodhue, Topeka bathtub salesman-turned-U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Though his character presaged the White House occupant of 2001, he show is dated in other respects -- from it’s naïve humor about the German Army and Mussolini to its outmoded gender roles like the browbeaten husband, the sugar daddy, and the all-male press corps. But the show’s quaintness can be appreciated as representative of the era, when Broadway musicals still bore the influence of vaudeville. It’s typically frivolous elements include both a character (Lois Saunders) who serves solely as a comic device, disappearing from the story before the end of Act 1, and a finale that instantaneously reunites every couple.

Leave It to Me deserves a re-airing every now and then if only for its significance in the musical-theatre history: it was the first collaboration between Porter and the Spewacks, who went on to create Kiss Me, Kate together, and it made a star of an ingénue named Mary Martin. As in the original production, the musical highlight here was Act 2’s "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," sung by the adorable Jamie Day as the ditzy blonde Dolly. Day showed all the talents and affability requisite for musical theatre stardom: while this role demonstrated her skill in character parts, she also has the voice and look for a more serious, romantic role.

Casting director Stephen DeAngelis must be praised for finding all the right types for the Leave It to Me cast -- not just day, but also short, balding Kenny Morris as the bumbling nerd Goodhue; brassy Robin Baxter as his domineering social climber of a wife; handsome Michael Scott as a philandering newsman; flame-haired Barbara McCulloh as Day’s more exotic and mature rival for Scott’s affections; and Gordon Connell, whose physical and memory gaffes may not have been intentional but fit his geezer character. Among those playing multiple roles, John Wasiniak deserves recognition for his versatility with accents, and J. Michael McCormack and Ed Smit also provided accented comic relief. Chorus numbers were buoyed by the vivacious ensemble.

Although well-suited for their parts, the performers were constrained by the staged-reading format, since holding their scripts prevented them from using their hands and arms. In addition, the slapstick in Act 1 could not be presented effectively because of the distracting scripts and restricted movements. The scaled-down production did have sufficient props and set, and the costumes (one to a performer) were appropriate and embellished when needed -- with a turban and babushka, among other things.

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