In the 1950s, a woman who was equally comfortable in the presence of congressmen as she was in Washington, D.C. high society was an anomaly. But that's a pretty accurate description of Sally Adams, the larger-than-life character who's at the center of Irving Berlin's “Call Me Madam.”
Time hasn't been especially kind to this 62-year old musical, one that fills the third slot of Lyric Theatre's 2012 summer season. “Call Me Madam” may be hopelessly locked in the era that produced it but of greater concern is the quaintness of its story line. Do I hear an ocarina playing?
Neither its book nor its lyrics can sustain much scrutiny. An example of the latter: “It's a lovely day for saying it's a lovely day.” Or consider this line spoken by a U.S. congressman: “The trouble with these European governments is that they're all run by foreigners.”
“Call Me Madam” is ultimately an operetta posing as a musical comedy. Most of its action takes place in the fictional country of Lichtenburg, where English is spoken with a foreign accent. But whereas an operetta such as “The Desert Song” boasts the seductive setting of Morocco, “Call Me Madam” gives off the perfumed air of mothballs.
That said, director Michael Baron has assembled a top-drawer cast for this production, Lyric's first (and I would assume its last). Adam Heller, Brian Stockton and Tom Huston Orr offer some fun playing a trio of Washington officials, but they get saddled with “They Like Ike,” a hopelessly corny number about Dwight Eisenhower's run for president.
Marilyn Govich and Robert Matson lend distinction to their roles of Lichtenburg's royal couple, she, the elegant but powerful Grand Duchess Sophie, and he, the bumbling and henpecked Grand Duke Otto.
Mateja Govich is haughty and self-confident as prime minister Sebastian Sebastian, while Eric McNaughton offers a nice blend of understated humor and arrogance as diplomatic agent Pemberton Maxwell.
Most mid-20th century musicals have a secondary plot that is either comedic or romantic. In “Call Me Madam,” we get Kenneth Gibson, a straight-arrow embassy staffer and Maria, the Princess of Lichtenburg. Their starry-eyed romance is pretty implausible but the youthful voices of Jeremy Benton and Molly Rushing are nevertheless impressive in the lilting “It's a Lovely Day Today.”
Steve Blanchard is a standout as Cosmo Constantine, a Lichtenburg official whose title changes each time there's a shuffling of government officials. Steadfast and confident, Blanchard's Cosmo also finds himself in an unexpected romantic relationship, one with U.S. Ambassador Sally Adams. Their duet “Marrying for Love” is especially lovely.
Tony Award winner Beth Leavel offers a take-no-prisoners characterization of the “Hostess with the Mostest.” She quickly disproves Maxwell's belief that he'll run the embassy and “Mrs. Adams will remain quietly in the background.”
Leavel's Sally rests somewhere between Aunt Eller and Molly Brown, plain-spoken women who didn't suffer fools gladly. But wouldn't someone who became the toast of Washington society acquire some polish along the way? Leavel's Sally is a Molly Brown who returned from Europe with barely a hint of refinement.
And while Leavel's take on Sally is humorously eccentric, she mostly emphasizes her character's brash nature and assertiveness. There's no denying Sally's claim that to achieve success, all you need is “an ounce of wisdom and a pound of gall.”
In the final analysis, “Call Me Madam” offers an enjoyable journey to the Broadway of yesteryear, with a comic genius happily chewing the scenery as the title character. Those who willingly submit to the idea of suspending reality will at least leave humming Berlin's delightful score.
— Rick Rogers