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'Call Me Madam' review: No Encore for this disappointing revival

Irving Berlin political satire was revived for City Center's 75th anniversary season.

Carmen Cusack stars in "Call Me Madam" at

Carmen Cusack stars in "Call Me Madam" at New York City Center. Photo Credit: Stephanie Berger.

If you go: “Call Me Madam” runs at City Center through Sunday | West 55th Street between Seventh and Sixth Aves, nycitycenter.org

What passed as “political satire” in 1950 does not have quite the same bite in 2019 — at least not as seen in the flat and tiresome City Center Encores! revival of Irving Berlin’s international affairs musical comedy “Call Me Madam,” a star vehicle (originally for Ethel Merman) that here happens to lack star power.

In an unusual onstage intro, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel acknowledged that Encores! previously presented “Call Me Madam” as part of its second season in 1995 (with Tyne Daly in the lead). A cast album was even recorded. Nevertheless, Viertel suggested that “Call Me Madam” was worth revisiting as part of City Center’s 75th anniversary season since it was the first hit show in the Encores! series. This was followed by a tribute video to City Center. At some point, the show itself finally began.

Seen today, “Call Me Madam” feels like it came from another universe, one where Democratic and Republican congressmen come together for square-dancing and soft shoe routines. Basking in postwar economic boom and international good will, it affectionately observes Mrs. Sally Adams, a brassy widow and benefactress who is appointed by President Harry Truman (who often calls on the telephone to check in on her) as Ambassador to the fictional and folksy European country of Lichtenburg.

Although Irving Berlin was the most successful and celebrated writer of American popular song of the 20th century, his Broadway shows do not hold up so well today when revived. Even “Annie Get Your Gun” needs to be heavily sanitized and revised. While “Call Me Madam” has at least four good songs (including a swinging counterpoint duet and a catchy ode to incoming President Dwight D. Eisenhower), much of the rest is second-rate operetta pastiche and the book (although amusing from a historical perspective) is drawn-out.

The Encores! revival still could have made for charming entertainment, but it is hampered by tone-deaf, draggy direction by Casey Hushion (who has extensive credits as an associate director on Broadway) and an ineffective lead performance by Carmen Cusack, who made a smashing Broadway debut three seasons ago in the musical “Bright Star” but is wholly miscast as Sally Adams, lacking the necessary old-fashioned comic sensibility.

I had originally assumed that “Call Me Madam” was being remounted mainly because Encores! had enlisted a major musical comedy star (such as Patti LuPone, Kristin Chenoweth, Donna Murphy, Christine Ebersole or Beth Leavel) to take on the role. Cusack plays Sally Adams like an understudy who has been ushered in at the last minute.

An attempt to add entertainment by casting comic actors (including Darrell Hammond, Carol Kane and Randy Rainbow) in uninteresting small roles proves to be counterproductive. A few sly nods to the current political divisiveness in Washington, D.C., do provoke a reaction from the audience.

Lauren Worsham is annoyingly ridiculous (with an overdone accent) as Princess Maria, a secondary romantic lead role. As the local government official who falls in love with Sally Adams, Ben Davis is stiff but passable.

“Call Me Madam” exposes the central challenge of the Encores! series (which generally does superb work): to breathe life back into musicals that often feel dated and problematic by today’s standards. With great casting and direction (as well as Rob Berman’s consummate musical direction, with a full orchestra), Encores! can work wonders. But every now and again, it lays an egg. This is one of those times.

Irving Berlin political satire was revived for City Center's 75th anniversary season.

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