Jerry's Girls, The Music and Lyrics of Jerry Herman, Conceived by Jerry Herman and Larry Alford. Directed by Tom Detwiler. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
(back row) Johnna Murray,Sally McCarthy, Cathy Lee-Visscher, Stephanie Tanaka; (front row) Sam Reilly, Paul Leyden; photo: provided
"Kiss her now - while she's young."
Songwriter Jerry Herman came along at just the right time. Songwriter Irving Berlin was winding down. Songwriter Frank Loesser was approaching the peak of his fame and ability. Songwriter Stephen Sondheim was still only a lyricist and not a composer as well, unlike the other three. The time for a new master of music and lyrics was 1960. Herman fitted into the need like a champion. And he had one other asset that his predecessors hadn't brought to the stage: a very thorough knowledge of the "strong" woman.
Berlin had, certainly, written the character of Annie Oakley for Ethel Merman in "Annie, Get Your Gun." Her soft songs were strong ones, made so by the personality of the interpretor: Merman just couldn't get soft into her voice. Loesser had given us Rosabella in "The Most Happy Fella," strong and gutsy but still not in control of her own destiny. But Herman surprised everyone with his first book musical, "Milk and Honey" with two strong women who made their own happiness by taking charge of the men around them. With his next show, "Hello, Dolly!" it was all over for the men.
He followed that dominant female with "Mame" in which Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame became the only person not truly affected by either men or economics but whose soft side emerged at least twice with songs that made you weep. It has been the keystone of a long career in which women dominate, take charge, sing songs that make you thrill. Even in one of his biggest hits, "La Cage aux Folles" it is the feminine streak in the hero of the work that tells the story and takes the center stage spot no matter what else is happening. His finest ballad is from that show, "Look Over There," and though not sung by the "heroine" it is about that character's inner strength and it is a showstopper.
That song is not a part of "Jerry's Girls" now on stage at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York. Thirty-two other Jerry Herman songs are performed by a cast of five women and one man, however. Some are as familiar as milk in your coffee; a few are rare gems that deserve to be heard more often. The cast on opening night was still finding its way through some of the material and having some trouble negotiating Bill Camp's gorgeous revue set with its seven levels for performance. The flow will improve with the playing, I have no doubt, but even so director Tom Detwiler has had his hands full with his cast and his concept. While I admire his work generally, he would have been better served by trusting the material and letting his singers stand still and sing instead of constantly moving them around.
In fact, the best moment in the show comes late in the second act when Johnna Murray gets to do just that, stand still and sing. The song is "Time Heals Everything" from "Mack and Mabel." Murray emerges from the crowd with this tune, giving it a classic Jane Froman styling and moving only during an instrumental break. Even more than its original interpreter, Murray takes you by surprise, breaks your heart and and makes you see her own. It is the moment to wait for when you see this show. She does almost as well with "Look What Happened to Mabel" from the same show and Mame's own best ballad "If He Walked Into My Life."
Cathy Lee-Visscher gets her own show-stoppers with "Two a Day" from the Revue, "Parade," and "Dear World"'s "And I Was Beautiful." Her duet with Sally McCarthy, "Kiss Her Now" from that same show, was a gorgeous moment in the second act.
Sally McCarthy herself has a few grand bits to perform. "I Don't Want to Know" from "Dear World" shines forth while "It Only Takes a Moment" from "Hello, Dolly!" was also special. Her other duet, this time with Murray, "Bosom Buddies" from "Mame" was solid and funny.
The only man in the show, Sam Reilly, exposed a delicate baritone voice, sometimes burly and sometimes gentle, with his special moments relating to the women both poignant and charming. "Song on the Sand" was especially lovely, "La Cage. . ."'s other soft moment. Kathy Wohlfeld took on some of the more humorous ditties including "Gooch's Song" and the final chorus of "Take It All Off" written especially for this show by Herman.
The big surprise, for me, was the vocalizing of Stephanie Tanaka. Her lyricism was simply exquisite. I have admired her talents for years and I know I've heard her sing before in something, but here she has come into her own. Every gesture was right, every note was right and even her Jeannette MacDonald parody song, "Nelson" from "A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine" was spot on with vocal production, comic timing and musicality. With "...Dolly"'s "Before the Parade Passes By" she made me forget both Carol Channing and Barbra Streisand.
Musical Director Paul Leyden barely gets his hands off the piano and Ian Tucksmith does well with his drums. Joanne Maurer's costumes were perfect for the show. Perfect!
I love the songs of Jerry Herman. I might have chosen a few other pieces, but it's hard to fault the perfection of his work, no matter which songs you choose. This show is exhausting, but isn't that what good material without respite does? If you like classic musical theater songs, then this is the show for you.
Jerry's Girls plays at the Ghent Playhouse, off route 66 in Ghent, NY through March 29. For information and tickets go on line at ghentplayhouse.org or call 1-800-838-3006.