Exactly appropriate in observing the 25th year anniversary of the ever-popular New York City Center Encores!, “Hey, Look Me Over!” (February 7-11) provided an abundance of pleasure in mining excellent songs from shows that didn’t make it as long-running hits but nonetheless had their high points. The ambitious, entertaining survey was smartly in keeping with the Encores! tradition of honoring show biz past.
Conceived by Jack Viertel, directed by Marc Bruni and choreographed by Denis Jones, “Hey, Look Me Over!” featured an impressive overture by the excellent Encores! Orchestra, led by music director Rob Berman and characteristically displayed on stage. But the show began with a clever introductory set-up--Bob Martin initiating congenial and often funny running comments that he wrote for his role as Man in the Chair. To those who recall “The Drowsy Chaperone,” it imitated the same role Martin had in that show and helped to neatly tie the potpourri of the chosen Encores! numbers together.
Martin even had some negative comments to spotlight flaws. My low spots emanated from efforts to give a taste of the storylines involved. Criticisms aside, there were many highlights presented by a superb cast, such as Bebe Neuwirth deftly singing Nöel Coward’s “Why do the Wrong People Travel?” in the “Sail Away” section.
In excerpts from “Milk and Honey” (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman), Marc Kudisch demonstrated his forceful singing voice teaming with appealing Judy Kuhn in the defining number “Shalom.” The survey also revealed highs of music and lyrics by Frank Loesser from “Greenwillow,” which suffers from a clunky book. The star here was Clifton Duncan, with a magnificent and powerful voice winning audience cheers for his renditions of “Gideon’s Charm” and “Never Will I Marry.”
Douglas Sills sang impressively as Mack with “Movies Were Movies” from “Mack and Mabel” (music and lyrics by Jerry Herman). There was sheer beauty in the number “Once Upon a Time” as sung by Reed Birney and Judy Kuhn from the show “All American” (music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Lee Adams). Birney was excellent as the immigrant Professor Fodorski who accepts a job from Kuhn as a university dean. In a nod to contemporary emotions, the audience applauded when the customs officer (Michael X. Martin) welcomed every immigrant equally, although he then hypocritically started separating them ethnically.
One of the best songs was “Hey, Look Me Over” from the 1960 “Wildcat” (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh), sung by Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman. (Lucille Ball starred in the original Broadway production.) The number still has a special impact.
Another highlight was the appearance of Vanessa Wiliams, looking great and singing "Ain’t It the Truth” from “Jamaica” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by E.Y. Harburg), as well as joining with others in the catchy “Push De Button.”
The other show represented in the expedition of discovery was “George M!” (music and lyrics by George M. Cohan and revisions by Mary Cohan) with Clyde Alves as Cohan and doing some exhilarating tap dancing, abetted by Ensemble tapping backup in “Give My Regards to Broadway.”
An encore treat after the curtain call was the company singing Irving Berlin’s setting to music the famous Emma Lazarus words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty for the song “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” from the 1949 show “Miss Liberty.” As one might expect, given President Trump’s war on immigration, the performance drew an eruption of applause from a New York audience that generally believes in the Lazarus spirit so counter to the president’s policies. At the New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-247-0430. Reviewed February 11, 2018.