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Stage Review : 'Me And My Girl' And Nostalgia

June 05, 1986|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

From the vault of ancient musicals steps "Me and My Girl," rouged and winking and doing the Lambeth Walk. They don't write them like this anymore. It is difficult to believe they ever did.

One would have to be English to explain the success of this 1937 revival, which has been running in the West End for more than a year and which is said to be heading for Broadway after it finishes its engagement for Civic Light Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Nostalgia is the only possible explanation: the same fondness for the innocent musicals of umpteen years ago that made America take to "No, No, Nanette" all over again in the 1970s, albeit with a new book. ("Me and My Girl's" book also has been tinkered with.)

But "Nanette" had "Tea for Two" and "I Want to Be Happy," while "Me and My Girl" has "Take It on the Chin" and "The Sun Has Got His Hat On." Nostalgia works better when you recognize the tunes. (Does anyone actually remember the Lambeth Walk, other than as a dance step?)

Actually, I quite liked "Take It on the Chin." The hero's Cockney girlfriend (Maryann Plunkett) has bravely decided to give him up, so as not to endanger his chance to become an earl. (The hero, played by Robert Lindsay, was raised Cockney, but was born, unbeknownst to him, a swell.)

What does a girl do when life forces her into such a decision? Why, she--music, maestro--Takes It on the Chin. Plunkett tries to be a good sport about giving up her man, but her sense of justice is offended and she can't help showing a touch of anger. One's heart goes out to her. It's the only moment in the show when anyone feels anything.

"The Sun Has Got His Hat On" is sung under what looks like a full moon, while the bon ton of Hareford Hall play croquet. It's almost a surprise that they're not using flamingos for mallets. The men are either twits (Nick Ullett), drunks (George S. Irving) or butlers (Thomas Toner,) and the ladies divide between gorgons (Jane Connell) and fortune-hunters (Jane Summerhays.)

The hero's girlfriend is worth a dozen of them. The same cannot be said for the hero. We are supposed to see him as a lovable little feller who really loves his girl and who isn't taken in by the nobs at Hareford Hall for a second. If so, however, why does he dillydally with them for so long that his girl naturally decides that she had better tiptoe out of his life?

The answer, I suppose, is that this is a 1937 musical comedy and that it gives Lindsay a chance to play some funny bits with the swells--falling all over the sofa with the available Miss Summerhays, taking lesssons in how to be elegant from Miss Connell (with his ancestors coming down from their paintings to spur him on) and getting drunk as a lord with Mr. Irving.

It does make Lindsay seem a bit of a rat, however, leaving his girl to cool her heels down the road while he frolics with the gentry in the main house. On the fairy-tale level, "Me and My Girl" might do better to admit that the hero does become a bit of a rat for a while, but eventually comes to his senses.

This would complement a certain slyness in Lindsay's approach to the part, to the extent that we're reminded as often of Olivier doing Archie Rice as we are of an endearinglittle guy like Stan Laurel or Norman Wisdom. This could be made to work for the character, rather than seeming, as it does now, a sardonic comment on the inanity of the story.

It might also add dramatic interest to the show, which at present sends the audience out at intermission with no reason to come back: The show's central problem has been solved. If the toffs and the low-lifes can mingle in such jolly, democratic fashion in "The Lambeth Walk," what's the horror in the new Lord Hareford marrying a perfectly nice girl from there?

The cast, part American, part British, handles itself with perfect comic composure--heroically so in the case of Timothy Jerome as Parchester, the family solicitor. His job is to be very solemn until asked for advice, after which he starts dancing around like a ballerina and singing about the flowers in May. Whoops, what larks.

Here is Mr. Irving, finding that the tea in his teacup is actually tea. "Phew! I had an aunt once who drank tea. Dead before she saw 50. Of course the steam roller didn't help matters . . . ."

1937. You had to be there.

'ME AND MY GIRL' An old musical, presented by Civic Light Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Book and lyrics by L. Arthur Rose and Douglas Furber, revised by Stephen Fry and Mike Ockrent. Set Martin Johns. Costumes Ann Curtis. Lighting Chris Ellis and Roger Morgan. Musi direction Stanley Lebowsky. Sound design Tom Morse. Orchestrations and dance arrangements Chris Walker. General manager Ralph Roseman. Dance assistant Karin Baker. Casting Howard Feuer. Production stage manager Steven Zweigbaum. With Jane Summerhays, Nick Ullett, Eric Hutson, Justine Johnston, Timothy Jerome, Leo Leyden, Jane Connell, George S. Irving, Thomas Toner, Robert Lindsay, Maryann Plunkett, Gloria Hodes, Elizabeth Larner, Susan Cella, Kenneth Waller, Eric Johnson, Donna Monroe and ensemble. Plays Tuesday-Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sunbays at 7 p.m., with matinees Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2. Closes July 19. 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 871-2002.

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