REVIEWS: The Girl Friend

Song Cycle - The Girl Friend
Off-Off Broadway
Reviewed by Elias Stimac

The masterminds behind Musicals Tonight! once again found a rare gem and polished it to a fine sheen. Herbert Fields's The Girl Friend is a simple enough tale -- a bicycle rider goes from farmhand to toast of the town, thanks to the help from his female admirer. But with snappy music by Richard Rodgers and sneaky lyrics by Lorenz Hart, the rags-to-riches story from 1926 still displays a heart of gold -- and a tuneful ear, to boot.

When Leonard (Ashton Byrum) receives visitors at The Silver Dairy Farm in Long Island, little does he know that among them is a famous sports promoter, Arthur Spencer (Trip Plymale), who can take him to the big city and big races. But with the big move, Lenny is forced to decide between his hometown girl Mollie (Carey Anderson) and shapely city gal Wynn (Nanne Puritz). Plenty of complications ensue, with the usual results in the end, but the script and the score provided lots of laughs and occasional tugs at the heartstrings.

Thomas Mills directed and choreographed the show, doing a commendable job with the material. The dancing could have used a bit more pizzazz and polish, and the pacing could have been picked up a notch, but otherwise Mills staged the action smoothly and skillfully. Particularly clever within the staged reading guidelines of the production was the ever-intriguing use of actors' scripts, which was incorporated into the choreographed movements.

Musical director and vocal arranger James Stenborg kept the music lively throughout, a one-man orchestra working overtime at the piano. Lighting by Shih-hui Wu delineated the various locales, making up for the absence of formal sets.

The cast recreated the nostalgic era well, even though none of them were alive when the show debuted. Byrum portrayed "pedaling fool" Lenny with earnest conviction, sometimes too earnest. Anderson's Mollie was more down-to-earth, assuring her a triumph in the tug-of-war for Lenny's affections. Though she lost the boy, Puritz won the audience as Wynn, showing a sexy side of the sassy city slicker. Plymale made a formidable promoter, Todd Buonapane was a cheerful racing champ, and Jennifer Winegardner shone as his no-nonsense mate. Shane Peterman was sufficiently stuffy as Wynn's determined fiancé, and as Spencer's rough-and-tumble trainer, Bruce Sabath brought his colorful character to comical life. The rest of the ensemble featured Stephen Brockway, Michael Shane Ellis, Sarah Farnam, Elizabeth Ingram, Tim Roberts, David Michael Roth, Hollis Scarborough, Celia Tackaberry, Stephanie Waters, and Rickey Alfonso Eubanks, II.

A tip of the hat to producer Mel Miller and his staff for another enjoyable (bike) trip down memory lane!

The Girl Friend
Back Stage June 18th, 2004
Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Musicals Tonight! revived Rodgers and Hart’s 1926 The Girl Friend, a musical comedy noted for one famous ballad, “The Blue Room,” as well as “Why Do I?,” “I’d Like to Take You Home to Meet My Mother,” and the title song. Herbert Fields’ book turned out to be much lighter weight than his own “A Connecticut Yankee” or Rodgers and Hart’s later “Babes in Arms” and “The Boys From Syracuse.” As a show, The Girl Friend is extremely formulaic, resembling many musical comedies of the period.

Nevertheless, Thomas Mill’s production has its charms, including two clever dance numbers. This concert revival also includes songs cut from the original production: the lovely ballad “Sleepy Head” and the witty “Pipes of Pansy,” sung in a brilliant counterpoint to “Creole Love Song” as performed in James Stenborg’s vocal arrangement.

The wispy plot concerns Lenny Silver’s wish to be a professional six-day bicycle racer. When an influential sports promoter visits his training camp (actually his aunt’s dairy farm) in answer to letters forged by Lenny’s trainer and girlfriend, Mollie, Spencer’s flirtatious sister Wynn sets out to seduce Lenny. How Mollie eventually gets Lenny back provides the story’s conflict.

As often in these old musical comedies, the secondary roles offer more opportunities than the bland romantic leads. As the champion’s girlfriend, Jennifer Winegardner makes a wry comedienne of Irene. Todd Buonopane as the champion himself provides a blustery hothead. Playing both Aunt Fanny and opera singer Madame de Lilly, Celia Tackaberry nearly steals both of her major scenes. And vivacious Nanne Puritz turns Wynn into a world-class vamp.

Ashton Byrum and Carey Anderson make a lovely couple in underwritten roles, and Anderson does a memorable drunk scene. As Wynn’s stuffy fiancé, Shane Peterman demonstrates a fine light baritone. Trip Plymale has some fun with the role of the promoter.

The Girl Friend
Off June 1st, 2004
Reviewed by David Cleaver

Full disclosure: I know both Mel Miller, the producer and James Stenborg, the musical director of The Girl Friend and have more than once offered my two cents on what shows ought to be presented by Musicals Tonight!

Mel Miller has, for the last six years or so, been producing a series of shows downtown under the aegis of Musicals Tonight! His taste has ranged from forgotten hits by Cole Porter to more modern cult favorites like My Favorite Year. He has given us a couple of musicals that originated in England and at least one that closed in its pre-Broadway tryout. I’ve caught three of his six revivals this season.

This time he has revived The Girl Friend, dating from 1926, mostly remembered for its title song and “The Blue Room.” It’s a ridiculous premise: something about a hick from a Long Island farm who has a talent for multi-day bicycle races. It was one of several early Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musicals that were noted for their fresh and breezy style. Fast patter, nifty dances, and most of all, incredibly bright and sassy songs are all hallmarks of these Roaring Twenties musicals.

This production comes with all the advantages and disadvantages of these low budget revivals. Gone are the sets, the costumes. The dancers, the orchestra, the lighting and huge sections of musical material are dropped. Of course, one must remember that many of these shows have never been unearthed since their original productions. Many elements may just be lost.

Technically these shows are performed as concerts: the actors have scripts in hand, but there is full blocking. The lack of rehearsal time is a real disadvantage for a musical like this, because there simply isn’t time to discover the rhythms of all the ancient gags, many of which were built around specific performers. A typical bizarre throwaway line like “I’m a taxidermist’s daughter and I know my stuff” falls flat without proper pacing. About half the performers seem to know how to negotiate their way around such traps, while others seem clueless. Whether the fault of the director or the performer there simply isn’t any reason for an actress to take as long as possible with every slow, slow walk across the stage. Too many actors try to make the quirky rhythms of comedy cross-talk conform to the patterns of everyday speech.

The leads are fine; as the heroine, Carey Anderson has a sweet sort of Ginger Rogers earnestness to her and Ashton Byrum is fun as the athlete-in-spite of himself. The secondary comics, Todd Buonopane and Jennifer Winegardner are properly goofy, especially in their songs. And it is always a pleasure to see veteran performers like Celia Tackaberry and Trip Plymale do their stuff.
What does survive? For one thing the score is great; even with a simple one piano accompaniment the music shines. A Charleston, a sweet ballad called “Sleepy Head,” a tribute to traveling theatrical troupes, ”Town Hall Tonight,” are but a few of the hidden delights.

Many of these songs are not recorded. Even the title song (which has been recorded by many jazz greats) has in addition to its familiar chorus

Isn't she cute?
Isn't she sweet?
She's gentle
And mentally nearly complete.
She's knockout,
She's regal
Her beauty's illegal.
She's the girl friend!

Only in performance do you find a new comic couplet:

“She’s one of those sweeties
who gives you the DT’s”
She's the girl friend!

Despite the style of some of the jokes, these scripts are not as dated as many people think. The Girl Friend is only a few years older than the first wave of movie musicals. Herbert Field’s book, and indeed the whole production, was intended as purely disposable topical entertainment and was never meant to survive the ages. When a show billed as The Girl Friend was produced in London a year or two later it had an entirely different plot, with four or five Rodgers and Hart songs tossed in (not all from this show).

One disturbing thing about the audiences for this and so many other similar revivals: the average age of the audience is well over the normal age of retirement. Where are the cabaret singers looking for new material? Where are the producers of musicals looking for revivable product? Where the heck are the friends of the cast? There must surely be a somewhat larger audience somewhere -- Encores! can fill 15,000 seats or more with revivals of only slightly better remembered musicals.

Still, there’s damn few people out there crazy enough to want to drag these shows out in whatever form. Far too much theatre history has been relegated to books with second and third hand stories about these shows. Mel Miller is one of the few actually trying to get them up on a stage and breathe a little life back into them. He’s moving Musicals Tonight! up to the old Primary Stages space on 45th Street next season. Here’s hoping he can find a larger (and younger) group of supporters uptown.

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