Call Me Madam
Book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse; Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
In 1949 Perle Mesta, a Washington hostess and fundraiser for the Democratic Party, was appointed as the first US Ambassador to Luxembourg. Daughter of a wealthy Oklahoma oil millionaire and widow of a steel magnate she became a key figure in Washington's political social life earning the title "the hostess with the mostes'". A friend of the Eisenhowers, she was one of Harry Truman's early supporters and her ambassadorship was her reward. She was only the third woman to be appointed to a US diplomatic post.
Call Me Madam turns her into Mrs Sally Adams, ambassadress to the tiny European Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. Everyone would have recognized that when this show premiered in 1951: the title shortens Mrs Mesta's original phrase of 'Call me Madame Minister' and of course one of the numbers is "the Hostess with the Mostes'." They would also have responded to the running gag of telephone conversations with President Truman where she commiserates with the President on the poor reception his daughter Margaret gets at she struggles to establish a career as a singer, all of which would have given it a topicality and suggested a satirical edge which are lost on most of a 2009 audience - indeed they didn't even seem to pick up on a reference to Princess Margaret and Danny Kaye.
With this satirical edge (already in 1951 a rather blunt one) gone the comedy lies in Mrs Adams riding roughshod over diplomatic protocol, and a smirk at American lack of knowledge of overseas and belief that a dollop of dollars is all that's needed to win hearts and minds elsewhere - though the book doesn't make anything of this being a loan and not a gift so its finally going to add to US coffers. It's self-parody rather than satire.
In fact the book seems so very thin that I wonder whether director Thom Southerland had hacked out a great deal more overly dated material that would have needed specialised 1950s knowledge to understand. Why, one might ask him, bother to revive it? Well, that's easy: a bevy of toe-tapping sparkling numbers from Irving Berlin and because, in my memory at least, the movie (I have never seen it previously on stage) was great fun.
Indeed this Stage Taylor revival at the Gatehouse is great fun too and had many of the first night audience whooping with delight. With the band permanently in view on a raised stage and the action played on the floor in front of them with no setting other than Stars and Stripes hoisted to a flagpole on one side of the stage and what I took to be a Lichtenburg flag on the other, though it was never unfurled. What was saved on the scenery designer Alison Brookes spent on lavish frocks for Beverley Klein as Sally Adams - who gives a performance that deserves, nay demands them. She belts out numbers with all the brassiness of Ethel Merman, the original Sally (whose understudy was Elaine Strich!), while sweet-voiced and engaging in her romantic ones.
Inevitably the show centres around Klein, though too often too literally with a succession of numbers in which the chorus surround her like choreographed foliage around the biggest bloom in a bouquet. Gido Schimanski is her gentle foil as the Lichtenburg politico with who she becomes romantically involved - a little too involved for diplomatic niceties, and Chris Love as her aide (looking like Danny Kaye in non-manic mode) is charming and tuneful. He falls for Princess Maria whom Kate Nelson presents as an automaton with a downturned grimace until she succumbs to love. With the action so truncated is says a great deal for the songs (and the performance of them) that the totally expected happy ending brought quite a lump to this old softie's throat: but then they include "It's a Lovely Day Today" and "The Best Thing for You Would Be Me."
The production retains an opening that places it clearly in 1951 but there is little sense of period about it. A young and nimble-footed company - with a senator and congressman who look too young to have the vote let alone get elected - tackle a wide range of lively dances, though I wonder why choreographer Drew McOnie chose to ignore what the lyric clearly identifies as a square dance and gives it a sort of twenties routine, and did not pick up on the tap-dancing rhythms of a couple of other numbers.
This barely makes the starting line as political satire but the simplicity and colourfulness of this production let the songs shine and, though you would hardly think a band of five musicians could make so much noise, they are well balanced and for once this is a musical where the band don't drown out the singers.
Until 16th August 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton