Would someone please write a great musical for Jo Anne Worley?
Until that happy day, we can watch her blast her way through the Ethel Merman repertoire. In 1984, it was "Gypsy" in Long Beach. Now, it's California Music Theatre's "Call Me Madam"--an Irving Berlin show from 1950--at Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
"Call Me Madam" is no "Gypsy." There are good reasons why it hasn't often been revived: The story is predictable, the satire is dated and the score has only one terrific number.
In an age when the directors of musicals get all the attention, star vehicles like "Call Me Madam" seem terribly old-fashioned. However, when the star has the pipes and presence of Worley, and when she fits behind the wheel as comfortably as she does in Pasadena, such contraptions have their place.
Imagine your most delightful 50ish relative entertaining everyone with broad retorts, twinkly asides and an infectious laugh, as she lurches her old rattletrap down a country road. That's what this "Call Me Madam" is like.
In this case, the country is Lichtenburg, a tiny European duchy to which Washington's most flamboyant hostess has been sent as ambassador. Writers Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse based their character Sally Adams on Perle Mesta, whom President Truman had appointed as ambassador to Luxembourg.
Most of the comedy arises from the contrast between the brash American, who knows what she wants and is willing to pay for it, and the more formal Lichtenburgers. When Sally falls for Cosmo (Giorgio Tozzi), the most attractive politician in the duchy, she can't imagine why he hesitates to accept a $100-million loan from Uncle Sam.
The point about the Americans throwing their money around must have tickled an audience that knew all about the Marshall Plan, especially because the writers also noted that most of the foreigners didn't share Cosmo's scruples about accepting such largesse.
But the point becomes blunted in the second act, as romance takes over more of the narrative. Furthermore, the subject isn't very pertinent in an era of enormous deficits, imbalances of trade and reduced foreign aid. Director Gary Davis doesn't pretend that the entire show holds up; missing are two numbers, "They Like Ike" and "The Washington Square Dance," from the published score.
Actually, the show's funniest scene has nothing to do with anything political. It's a duet between Sally and her aide Kenneth (Michael Magnusen), who has been smitten with the Lichtenburg princess (Beverly Ward). "I hear singing, but there's no one there," sings Magnusen, with a glazed look in his eyes. "You don't need analyzing," explains Worley, in Berlin's syncopated counterpoint. "You're just in love."
It may not sound like a rip-roaring comedy number, but that's what it becomes, as Worley and the previously buttoned-down Magnusen pile on more extravagant comic gestures with each repetition of the song. Finally, as Worley swings her necklace around her neck and Magnusen starts to undress, the song has all but disappeared, drowned out by the laughter.
Another kind of noise, an annoying hum in the sound system, obstructed some of the other lyrics on opening night, especially in the opening choral number. Generally, though, Jeff Rizzo's musical direction is clean and brisk.
Just as the story contrasts the old and new worlds, so does Berlin's score. Tozzi's bass-baritone well represents the part of the show that's European operetta--a genre that Berlin just might have been parodying in a little ditty called "The Ocarina," sung amid a sea of corny peasant costumes.
"The Ocarina" isn't really very funny. More amusing are Worley's conversations with her snippy charge d'affaires (Ray Stewart) or her parade of outfits, which ranges from smashing party dresses to a seduction ensemble that includes leopard-skin tights under a filmy black negligee. Costumers Garland Riddle and Arlene Zamiara must have had fun doing this show.
And Worley is clearly having a ball.