Cole Porter is reported to have called his 1938 "You Never Know" the worst musical he ever wrote. He was having a bad day.
He suffered the riding accident that crushed his legs at the time he wrote it. And he was fending off the Shuberts who wanted a bigger show with dancing girls and production numbers. Guess who won. It was not a big success.
The show of the same name that opened Sunday at the Pasadena Playhouse has none of that. It is a reconstruction by director Paul Lazarus, along the lines of what he claims Porter originally intended.
We'll never know. What we do know is that Lazarus, the newly appointed artistic director of the Playhouse, has created a pleasant surprise: a chamber musical that's something of a mix of Porter, Moliere and Feydeau, based on an urbane drawing-room farce with a French-Viennese flavor.
Very 1929, the year in which it happens. Lazarus admits to tinkering and to playing fast and loose with the music, cannibalizing other Porter shows to assemble this bonbon. In the main, Porter would have approved.
Lazarus has assembled a delicious cast, with Harry Groener as the womanizing Baron Rommer and Donna McKechnie as Mme. Baltin, the married object of the Baron's affections. He is at all times aided and abetted by the wily Gaston (David Garrison), his valet. Anything the Baron can do, Gaston assumes he can do better. This and a wrong number get Gaston into a peck of trouble when he finds himself impersonating his boss and having an assignation in the apartment with Maria (Megan Mullally), a young woman flattered beyond words that this "Baron" is paying attention.
It's a classic comedy of mistaken and assumed identities that intensifies when the Baron comes home unexpectedly; when his former fiery flame Ida (Angela Teek) shows up uninvited; when Mme. Baltin's irascible husband (Kurt Knudson) threatens a duel, and when Mme. Baltin decides to succumb to the Baron's advances.
You get all this, an elegant Art Deco set by James Joy, stylish costumes by Reve Richards (who should, however, reconsider the outfit for Mme. Baltin's first appearance, especially the hat) and Porter's music, of which the title song, "You Never Know," is the least alluring.
But it is soon followed by the Porter we love and know: Gaston's tongue-twisting "Let's Not Talk About Love" (borrowed from Porter's 1941 "Let's Face It"); Gaston's singing and dancing duet with Maria, "From Alpha to Omega"; the clever "What Shall I Do?" and the sensational "Let's Misbehave," which--incredibly--was dropped from Porter's 1929 show, "Paris."
The excellent musical direction is by John McDaniel, with supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Steve Orich.
For reasons that are unclear, Lazarus has chosen to make what was once a two-act show into three. His third act is the most problematic, with some of the musical's best songs--"What Is That Tune?," "Ridin' High" (borrowed from "Red, Hot and Blue") and the gorgeous "At Long Last Love"--too often interrupting rather than underscoring the flow of the action. But it also has the highlight of the show, a dance superduet with Groener and McKechnie, and a hilarious resolution of the comedy.
The success of "You Never Know" rests heavily with the company. Garrison has razor-sharp comic timing, beautifully exploited by Lazarus, who taps the Moliere slapstick in Gaston. Mullally is a game partner as the pert Maria, and Groener's Baron a suavely understated sophisticate.
Knudson blusters as Herr Baltin and Teek fumes as the rejected Ida, which is all they need to do. That we have to wait until Act III before we get a good look at McKechnie is almost vindicated by the amplitude of her rewarding duet with Groener. For this, and for all of the breezy, seemingly effortless other dancing, choreographer Thommie Walsh deserves abundant credit. But surely a way can be found to make McKechnie's presence more substantially felt much earlier on? It is vital not only for an audience hungry to see her but also for the dramatic health of the piece. We will better believe in the heat of the Baron's emotions if we can see the reason why.
Lazarus has been tinkering with this "You Never Know" since 1982 and is presumably not quite through. One hopes not. This is a 1930s movie for the stage: giddy, tender, fun and down to earth. Considering the bludgeoning rash of overbuilt, overpriced musicals in the last few years, this unpretentious little charmer comes as great relief at the perfect time.
It is classy, intimate, happy, with terrific music and a cast of six. That's right, six. Did anybody note that? You never know. . . .
* "You Never Know," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 30. $33; (818) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
'You Never Know'
Harry Groener: Baron Ferdinand Rommer
David Garrison: Gaston
Donna McKechnie: Mme. Baltin
Angela Teek: Ida
Megan Mullally: Maria
Kurt Knudson: Herr Baltin
A Pasadena Playhouse presentation in association with Theatre Corporation of America, Inc. of a 1938 musical by Cole Porter based on the play "By Candlelight," by Sigfried Geyer, Karl Farkas, Robert Katscher as adapted by Rowland Leigh. Additional adaptation Paul Lazarus. Director Paul Lazarus. Sets James Joy. Lights Martin Aronstein. Costumes Reve Richards. Sound Jack Allaway. Musical director John McDaniel. Musical supervision, arrangements, orchestrations Steve Orich. Choreographer Thommie Walsh. Production stage manager Dana Axelrod. Stage manager Evan Ensign.