"LITTLE ME" should be a big hit for Ford's Theater. Director/choreographer David Bell's reconstruction of his hit Chicago production has replaced the creaky "A Christmas Carol" as Ford's annual holiday show. And Bell suffuses the inspired silliness of Neil Simon's first musical with his own midwestern brand of squeaky- clean showmanship -- it's all big jokes, brassy tunes and bright colors, entertainment pure and simple.
In movie queen Belle Poitrine (nee Schlumphert), "Auntie Mame" author Patrick Dennis created another larger-than-life lady, and "Little Me," adapted from Dennis' novel, is an episodic retelling of Belle's rags- to-riches story.
An indomitably cheerful waif, Belle falls in love with blue-blooded, impossibly perfect Noble Eggleston, who loves her almost as much as himself. But as Noble is "descended from the earliest rich people," poor Belle is obviously unfit to marry him. So off she goes on a trek from one side of the tracks to the other, in search of wealth and culture and social position.
Blithe Belle has ample charms and a literally fatal attractiveness to men -- accidentally snuffing a long line of suitors one by one. But each dies happy, leaving Belle, cheerfully oblivious to the havoc she's caused, one rung higher on the social ladder.
For the lead roles, Bell has imported the two actors from his Chicago cast, and they generate most of the zip and zest. As young Belle, Carol Dilley defines adorableness, all winks and dimples, strutting a sassy voice on Cy Coleman's real live melodies.
Dilley's dash is matched by the elastic exploits of James Sudik, who tries on the multiple personalities originated by Sid Caesar, shuttling swiftly through seven characters -- Patrick Dennis, noble Noble, a Scroogelike banker, a vain French entertainer, a sweet hapless nerd, a dictatorial film director and an effete monarch. Sudik gets a high laugh percentage in nearly all of his guises, helping himself to some ad-lib clowning along the way.
"Little Me" is a triumph for musical director Rob Bowman as well. Bowman, one of our town's best pianists, coaxes more colors than would seem possible from his small orchestra, and his expertly modulated orchestrations never overpower the singers on songs like "Real Live Girl" and "Here's to Us."
Reveling in Simon's encyclopedia of schtick, Bell gets a steady momentum going from scene to color-coordinated scene of "Little Me," and the fresh-faced cast bounds athletically through his peppy choreography, reminiscent of nothing so much as the antics of a college cheerleading squad.
If there's a quibble, it's a wish that a mite more of the show's tongue-in-cheek naughtiness were allowed to surface. Bell's direction coyly averts its gaze from the risque implications of Belle's carnal climb.
LITTLE ME -- At Ford's Theater through December 15.