Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
In 1962 Sid Ceasar was the reigning King of America Comics. He made a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in “Little Me” – a musical tailor-made for him by a hand-picked creative team. Neil Simon wrote the book, Cy Coleman wrote the music, Carolyn Leigh wrote the lyrics, Bob Fosse choreographed and co-directed with Cy Feuer. The show was a hit as long as Caesar remained in the title role, but, as with any star vehicle, it is difficult to revive and has not had much of a life in regional theatre. It failed on Broadway in 1982 when the Caesar role was divide between two actors. Martin Short brought it back to Broadway this past season, extensively rewritten by Simon to “suit Short’s talents. It earned him the Tony for Best Lead Actor in a Musical, but the show closed in less than three months.
Being certain that neither Sid Caesar nor Martin Short was appearing at the Theater Barn, the question loomed – what do you do with a star vehicle when you don’t have a star? The WTF might have the clout to lure a big enough name to generate some excitment, but not the Theater Barn. Would they cast just one brave actor in the many character roles created for Caesar, or would they split the roles among many actors?
Well, they cast John Heinis, who was a splendid Jesus in their recent production of Godspell. He’d cut his hair from the required ’70’s lion’s mane to a preppy, short cut for this show and it took me until intermission to figure out that it was the same guy. This is good because you really don’t want Jesus singing the Boom-Boom Song. It is also good because it proved Heinis was an actor, not just a wanna-be. With minimal costume changes he morphed from Illinois snob Noble Eggleston to that great French entertainer Val du Val to the dying Slavic Prince Cherney. You knew all of them were Heinis – just the way you knew they were all Sid Caesar or Martin Short, that’s what you’d paid your money to see – but each character had a comic style of his own, and it was definitely fun to watch Heinis do his thing.
This is also a really great looking show. I loved set designer Jay Ennis’s paint job on the stage floor – Pepto-Bismol pink bordered in zebra stripes – and the tilted picture frame on the back wall into which titles and sight gags were projected. The costumes, designed by Guy Lee Bailey, Denise Dygert, and actor/cheesemaker Jimmy Johansmeyer, were well coordinated in brilliant colors on white.
“Little Me” was built as a star vehicle, but the comic roles do not form the center of the play. The show is based on a book by Patrick Dennis about a fictional movie siren named Belle Poitrine. Actually, she was born Belle Schlumpfert – Poitrine is her married name, at least one of them. At the age of 16 dirt-poor Belle falls for snooty brat Noble Eggleston and devotes her entire life to acquiring wealth, culture, and social position, the three attributes Noble claims she must have before he can consider marrying her. She succeeds by the last scene and she and Noble are happily reuinted when Noble’s heartbroken mother accidentally kills Belle’s third husband, Lucky. Along the way there is a murder or two, World War I, and the sinking of a great ocean liner named the Gigantic…
Theater Barn regular Maria Vee plays Belle throughout her life (on Broadway the role was shared between an actress playing young Belle and another playing her in later years). Vee is no where near 16, and she does not posses a perfect figure. She looked much, much better in Belle’s later more glamorous gowns which covered and flattered more. Belle Poitrine is French for Beautiful Bosom (well, that’s the polite translation), and Vee was undoubtedly cast for her womanly gifts, which were prominently displayed throughout the show. There is a reason why they don’t make the Wonder Bra in larger sizes and you will discover it if you attend this show.
Despite the excellent credentials of the original creative team, “Little Me” is not a perfect show. It boasts some great songs – “Real Live Girl” and “I’ve Got Your Number” – which have gone on to become standards, their origins in this show long forgotten. And Simon’s book is broadly funny. But the show is hollow at the core. You really don’t care much about Belle, and the one-guy-playing-all-the-men-in-her-life schtick means that no one of them is one stage long enough for you to get too involved with. Simon himself has gone on record saying that the slap-stick humor prevented the audience from getting involved with the plot and characters.
But this is a good production of a funny show. Heinis pulls off what is required of him, and everyone on the stage seems to be having a really great time, which always adds a lot to any production. The design elements are top-notch and there are plenty of hearty laughs to be had. You could do worse!
“Little Me” runs through August 22 at the The Theater Barn on Route 20 just west of downtown New Lebanon, NY. The show runs two hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999