Apr. 1, 2006
70, Girls, 70
Kander and Ebb’s flimsy, genial musical 70, Girls, 70 seems ageless, but not entirely in a good way. It’s not so much eternally fresh as intrinsically musty; it’s hard to imagine this synthetic nostalgia trip, with its cutesy vigor and winking showbiz gloss, ever having the tang of newness about it.
To be fair, that’s essentially how Kander and Ebb originally conceived it back in 1971: as a sort of sketch-cabaret homage to an older generation of Broadway talent. Kathleen Marshall’s new Encores! production is likewise a loving tribute to its cast, whose glee in getting to trot out all their old moves, and to have an audience eat them up, is nearly irresistible. It seems clear enough, though, why 70, Girls, 70 withered on Broadway—not just because the similarly themed Follies debuted the same season, but because it’s less a show than a series of old-timey routines.
Ebb and Norman L. Martin’s book, based on Peter Coke’s play Breath of Spring, is essentially a Mickey-and-Judy story with gray hair. In this case, the “barn” consigned to the wrecking ball is an Upper West Side residence hotel, the Sussex Arms, and the “show” the oldsters put on to save it is a goofy crime spree involving stolen fur coats and safe-cracking dynamite. But in 70, Girls, 70’s self-reflexive show-within-a-show concept, there’s little pretense that we’re watching anything but veteran performers strut their stuff one glorious final time.
The opening is properly disarming, with a line of grumpy seniors in chairs, scripts in hand, complaining of aches and pains. Before we know it they’ve thrown off their canes and blankets, formed a kick line, and announced that this isn’t going to be that kind of show. The 22-member company gets several more gratifying chances to strut their stuff, with varying degrees of still-sharp prowess: Harvey Evans and Robert Fitch, in particular, can still do a bouncy buck-and-wing like nobody’s business, and most of the cast’s voices still rise to the occasion.
Unfortunately that’s not the case with Olympia Dukakis, in the lead role of the free-spirited Ida. Even by the relatively loose standards of the Encores! concert-reading format, Dukakis seems awkwardly under-rehearsed, and she doesn’t sing so much as declaim. Dukakis’ sheer force of personality and her offhanded glamour ultimately carry her through. In the absence of a stronger Ida, though, our anchors for the evening become Tina Fabrique and Mary Jo Catlett, as a pair of wisecracking waitresses, and the effortlessly classy Bob Dishy and Anita Gillette, as a courtly pair of lovers whose teasing “Do We?” number is one of the show’s priceless high points.
The indisputable showstopper is another deceptively simple duet between a callow bell boy (Mark Price) and his granny (Charlotte Rae). Wittily boiling the show’s appeal down to the formula, “Go Visit Your Grandmother,” the song has Rae, a white-haired munchkin in a hideous pink-tablecloth dress and orthopedic shoes, waddle through a charming soft shoe and warble winningly in that inimitable head voice of hers. This is the good kind of agelessness.
Conductor Paul Gemignani, looking ever more like a slightly seedy Burl Ives, leads the band with a swinging clip, especially in the Dixieland stomp that opens Act Two. It’s hardly Kander and Ebb’s best score: Songs like “The Caper,” delivered giddily by George S. Irving, or Ida’s trifling “The Elephant Song,” should have stayed in the trunk. And the dialogue is full of affirmations that sound like T-shirt slogans: “I refuse to think of myself as old,” or, “What I’ve got is young blood—I just keep it in an old container.” But the line that best sums up 70, Girls, 70’s knowing attitude about both aging and showbiz is delivered by Gillette, who tells a colleague before her big entrance: “Break a hip.”
70, Girls, 70
Book by Fred Ebb and Norman L. Martin
Music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall
Encores! at City Center