Any self-described “regular New Yorker . . . who happens to love musical theater more than life itself” — to borrow the words of the cranky, anxious, lovable Man in Chair from “The Drowsy Chaperone” — is likely to not only subscribe to City Center’s Encores! series, but have passionate feelings about which shows have and have not received the Encores! treatment.
Programming an Encores! season has got to be a difficult dance. Ideally, the shows should not be so well-known and artistically sound that they merit full-scale Broadway revivals, but not so antique or problematic that they cannot sustain an evening’s entertainment. Hopelessly obsessed musical theater enthusiasts (such as myself) spend their free time devising lists of shows that they believe Encores! should present.
In response to its opinionated subscribers, and in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Encores! is launching its new season with “Hey, Look Me Over!,” an unusual and uneven tour of various musicals that Bob Martin (returning to his Man in Chair persona) believes deserve a second look.
These shows (mostly 1960s flops) include “Wildcat” (star vehicle for Lucille Ball), “Jamaica” (star vehicle for Lena Horne), “All American” (about a foreign engineering professor-turned-football coach), “Milk and Honey” (about American tourists in Israel), “Mack & Mabel” (Jerry Herman’s beloved flop about silent movie star Mabel Normand and producer Mack Sennett), “Greenwillow” (fable about a remote village and family curse), “Sail Away” (Noel Coward’s cruise liner musical comedy) and “George M!” (song and dance-packed bio of George M. Cohan).
This is not a concert, but rather a super sampler of overtures, songs and dialogue from each musical, with a large cast that includes Bebe Neuwirth, Vanessa Williams, Reed Birney, Carolee Carmello, Douglas Sills, Marc Kudisch and Judy Kuhn.
The resulting show is sometimes enjoyable but often clunky and disorienting, with some great solos and duets followed by insipid dialogue and ensemble numbers. While most of these shows do not deserve full Encores! productions, it is difficult to take them seriously on their own terms in this rushed and limited context.
That being said, I think the audience should vote at the end as to which of these musicals it would like to see produced next season. As for my vote? It’s “Mack & Mabel.”