It is fascinating to look back on the 1950 Broadway show “Call Me Madam,” with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. New York City Center Encores! presented the show once before in 1995, and the new occasion (February 6-10, 2019) is part of City Center’s 75th anniversary year. With its typically smart concert style staging, almost at full production level, Encores! demonstrates how cleverly satirical the show was for its time, and it has some absolutely delightful Berlin songs to enjoy.
“Call Me Madam” was clearly a romp spoofing Washington socialite Perle Mesta, as “The Hostess with the Mostes’ on the Ball,” as the song goes, and her appointment in 1949 as ambassador to Luxembourg. The original star in the role of Mrs. Sally Adams was the legendary Ethel Merman. The new leading lady, Carmen Cusack, is no Merman (who is?) but she gives a winsome performance on her own terms, including her ability to make her musical numbers soar with her appealing voice. What’s more, she makes the character come to life believably as she integrates the comedy with the romance that blossoms so that there is real feeling projected within the corny plot and her deft satirical interpretation.
Cusack as Sally is appointed ambassador to the fictional country of Lichtenburg, and she hasn’t a clue as to where the country is. But off she goes, very game, and carrying with her the reputation for throwing gala parties. She has no sense of protocol, and soon she is in love with Cosmo Constantine, first Lichtenburg’s foreign minister and then prime minister, played with suave charm and a rich voice to match by Ben Davis.
With the ever-popular Encores! Orchestra, under the baton of musical director Rob Berman, doing justice to the score, there are numerous Berlin songs to enjoy, such as the leads singing “The Best Thing for You” and “Marrying for Love,” and Cusack having fun with “Can You Use Any Money Today?” Secondary players are given terrific musical slots, with Lauren Worsham as Princess Maria and Jason Gotay as the smitten press attaché Kenneth Gibson teaming in one of the show’s best songs, “It’s a Lovely Day Today.”
There is also the nutty number “The Ocarina,” with a Lichtenburg’s residents dressed in hokey country-like costumes and dancing comically. Choreographer Denis Jones lets his imagination run wild, including with a female chorus line stepping and kicking and looking amusingly like physically challenged Rockettes.
From our current vantage point one can enjoy the satire that tickled audiences of that era, such as a country that doesn’t want a loan of 100 million dollars from the U.S., and even 200 million. There are calls to Sally from President Harry Truman, including references to his daughter’s controversial singing. One line about the inability to figure out the past election, while in its time referring to the 1948 Truman-Dewey race, gets a loud laugh from the audience in the wake of Trump’s surprise victory. There are references to Democrat-Republican rivalry via the portrayal of legislators. And Berlin contributed the prophetic song, “They Like Ike,” forecasting the Eisenhower presidency. Director Casey Hushion knows how to spotlight the satirical highpoints that take us back in time, yet trigger current comparisons.
The cast and chorus work brighten the revival. For example, although the part of Sebastian Sebastian, initially the prime minister of Lichtenburg, is not momentous, I enjoyed seeing it played by Randy Rainbow, who has become internationally famous for his outrageously funny videos making fun of Donald Trump. There was also the flamboyant appearance of Carol Kane as Grand Duchess Sophie along with Darrell Hammond as Grand Duke Otto.
As for the overall book of the show, it is ridiculous to examine it in the context of today’s musicals. One has to regard it as a product of its time, which, of course, is in tune with the Encores! mission of letting us have fresh looks at past musical works. It is a mission consistently fulfilled with talent, style and overall expertise, as is the case with this new offering of “Call Me Madam.” At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed February 10, 2019.