Mini-review – Call Me Madam – Union Theater

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I feel like I’ve been living in a bubble for years. I choose to be in one where I don’t hear about the latest TV shows (my cut off being about 1984); but because I grew up in places that were relatively backward compared to London, I had few opportunities (and less money) to see live musicals before I moved across the pond. I realize that lots of people (let’s imagine Man In Chair) managed to catch up with all of the old musicals via their LPs and video tapes; but this has never been me. Old films of musicals didn’t enchant me … I found the larger than life performance styles and bizarre technicolor and lighting made them … unpalatable. Me, really, I am the kind of person who is sold on a musical by actually seeing it. And what with living in Phoenix, Arizona until the mid-nineties and following that up with Seattle, Washington (which has a great fringe theater scene but just a trickle of musicals coming through on tour) … well, you’ll just have to forgive me for the fact that, as of Sunday, October 16th, 2012, I had not only never seen Call Me Madam, I didn’t know a thing about it, not a single song, and not even as much as that it was the work of Mr. Irving Berlin, one of my favorite musicals composers. So cue up a cards party at the home of Mr Andrew Whinger, where suddenly it was hot tip time and yes, I’ll go get myself a ticket immediately to see the production at the Union Theater (which proved a bit of an effort given how many performances had already sold out!).

After all of the hassle to finally go, how did it turn out? The plot was actually paper-thin, in some ways very typical of late-40’s/early 50’s musical product … an American oil heiress, Sally Adams (Lucy Williamson) is given a job as ambassadress to a smallish, imaginary, impoverished European country (“Lichtenburg”), apparently on the basis of her ability to throw great parties. Cue lots of songs about having great parties, and a plot involving two romances, one for Sally and one for her nerdy assistant Kenneth (Leo Miles). The play is as blithely unconcerned about the realities of American foreign policy as Sally herself is, though it does have a BRILLIANT song about American presidential politics (“They Like Ike”) that perfectly captures the horse-race tendencies and what it is that Americans go for when they vote, SO topical this week!

With me being six years out of America, I found this musical both nostalgic for the ignorance of the 50s and rather accurate in its depiction of Americans being all about money and being nice. It was all just a bit too light and fluffy for me, and I wasn’t really distracted enough by the dancing or entertained enough by the songs in act one to consider it something really worth the effort of restaging. But that all changed in act two, when the emotional tension was ratcheted up and Berlin started cranking out amazing songs (I was initially hacked off that the woman behind me was singing along but after being earwormed for three days with “You’re Just in Love” I’m starting to think she may have just been permanently damaged by its catchiness). And, let’s be honest, jammed in the Union-budget party dresses, Lucy Williamson was actually pretty darned amazing, one hundred percent behind her role, unconcerned about acting like a woman of a certain historicity in favor of being a STAR … which was exactly what this show needs. She’s on stage nearly every minute, and she has to have personality in spades … and she delivers. My God, she even tap dances. So while over all, I’d say Call Me Madam isn’t one of the higher stars in the musical pantheon, it is enjoyable, and a good vehicle for an actress with Williamson’s charisma. And at £18 a pop with her practically singing in your lap … well, I can see why the run is selling out. And damned, but aren’t those Berlin songs catchy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, October 27th.)

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