A lot is wrong with Ford's Theatre's revival of the 1962 Broadway musical "Little Me," but one thing is delightfully and deliciously right: Carol Dilley.
She is, fortunately, at the center of this loony musical about the fabled existence of a certain Belle Poitrine, nee Belle Schulmfort, who pulls herself up by her bra straps from poverty to a position of wealth and renown. But even when she's not occupying the spotlight, you'll want to search her out. There are performers like that: Just knowing they're on the sidelines, ready to step forward when summoned, is a comfort.
Actually, Dilley is one of the two Belle Poitrines in the show, which opened a six-week run last night. Having achieved her three goals in life -- big bucks, celebrity and social prominence -- Older Belle (Beth Williams), as she is called, has decided to entrust the colorful, if equivocal, details of her roller-coaster past to a biographer. As she dips into her reminiscences, Young Belle, which is to say Dilley, plays out the questionable episodes with the sort of pluck and sweet innocence that Orphan Annie would envy.
Come to think of it, Dilley's got the same little pinholes for eyes, the same fire engine red tint to her hair, and a mouth that appears to be no more than a hyphen, until she opens it to sing. Then, look out! The lady possesses a strappingly confident voice that suggests she will not only get to "The Other Side of the Tracks," but also acquire every title and tiara her heart desires along the way. The mixture of helpless naivete' and unstoppable resolve is irresistible.
Did I mention that her knees knock? Well, they do, and they're endearing.
"Little Me" was inspired by Patrick Dennis' book of the same name, a sendup of as-told-to biographies, and put into script form by a young Neil Simon, who then had only one Broadway comedy to his name, the forgettable "Come Blow Your Horn," but was already churning out the jokes like sausage. The enduring snap, crackle and pop, however, comes from the score by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. This is Broadway razzmatazz, as you rarely ever hear it these days. "Real Live Girl" and "I've Got Your Number" were the two big numbers to emerge from the show, but frankly there isn't a dud in the bunch.
None of this set Broadway abuzz, however, when the musical was originally announced. "Little Me" marked the return of Sid Caesar, then at the crest of his popularity as a television comic, to the live stage. To celebrate the occasion, the creators let him portray the various men in Belle's life -- seven in all. As you might expect, the script resembles a compilation of Sid Caesar sketches, and the problem with subsequent revivals has been finding the zany who has in him a dutiful Patrick Dennis; insufferably pure Noble Eggleston; Mr. Pinchley, a skinflint banker; French chanteur Val du Val; Fred Poitrine, a hick doughboy; Otto Schnitzler, a tyrannical film director; and Prince Cherney, an effete European monarch on his deathbed.
At Ford's the multiple assignments go to James W. Sudik, a likable performer who bats five out of seven, missing the boat (and the accent) only with the director and the prince. In his best caricatures, Sudik is as accurate as he is agile. Indeed, he has a pair of legs that appear to be made of rubber. They bend, collapse, flap, wriggle and all but tie themselves in slip knots. His legs, in fact, upstage his face, which tends to the deadpan. For all his versatility, what he's lacking is an inflated sense of insanity that would hurl the evening forward from one bit of nonsense to the next. He's good, but he's small. As a result, "Little Me" turns into Belle's show, which indicates that its full comic potential is not being tapped.
After his dreadfully saccharine production of "Godspell," director David Bell could only do better with this outing, and he does. He has an inventive and energetic touch and his choreography for "Be a Performer," danced by Young Belle and the two Buchsbaum Brothers, who want to launch her on the vaudeville circuit, is a spiffy bit of show-business hokum. On the whole, though, "Little Me" is a far more raffish show than Bell lets on. There is ultimately something antiseptic about his view of musical comedy, a squeaky cleanliness that wars with the material.
That not a whiff of sex emanates from this production may augur well for the family trade. But, let's face it, Belle's meteoric ascent in the world is directly attributable to her astonishing figure and its inevitable effect on the male libido. What makes the show funny is the blitheness with which she navigates the sleazy shoals of her life -- murders, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, reprobates on the make and poisoning, not to mention a mother who hooks for a living, and not just rugs. Bell prettifies it all. Tidiness is his obsession.
The supporting performers, scrubbed to a full blush and garbed in color-coordinated costumes, aren't playing roles in this saga; they're playing cutesy theater games. Once again, Bell is deploying bolts of silk (for ocean waves). Once again, he's ending every big dance number with his all-American half-time acrobatics. While Mark Bove appears perfectly capable of setting the stage afire with the show's sizzler, "I've Got Your Number," Bell's choreography makes it look more like a dance recital than a seduction.
That, I suspect, is another reason you'll look to Dilley. She has mischief in her soul and just a touch of perversity in her dimples. If you accused Belle of parlaying her assets into a fortune, she'd probably deny it. But Dilley knows better. She's dumb -- like a fox.
Little Me. Book by Neil Simon. Music, Cy Coleman; lyrics, Carolyn Leigh. Directed and choreographed by David Bell; musical direction, Rob Bowman; set, Daniel Proett; costumes, Doug Marmee; lighting, Susan A. White. With James W. Sudik; Beth Williams; Carol Dilley; Michael McCarty, Mark Bove; William P. Leonard, Christopher Wells. At Ford's Theatre for six weeks.