Few theaters have the guts to produce Little Me – owing to the requirements of the show’s leading man: he must be a star, and be able to hold an entire show with his punchlines. It’s extremely daunting, and this first show of Summer Lyric’s 40th anniversary season has succeeded, in spades. Ricky Graham is the star, and within a whirlwind two and a half hours, he plays no less than seven recurring characters, often in quick change succession. On stage for most of the show, he’ll face the enormous task of making every bit of Neil Simon’s wickedly funny book that is now 40 years old, and make it fly for an audience of 1000. Graham has been heaped praise over the years, but you’ll find yourself scrambling for the thesaurus, furiously looking up new superlatives after you take in this breathtakingly funny performance!
Little Me was written for one of television’s biggest stars, Sid Caesar. Composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh were fresh off their first collaboration for star Lucille Ball – Wildcat and bookwriter Neil Simon had just had his first success on Broadway with Come Blow Your Horn, not to mention that he was already known in the biz for his showmanship as a writer on Caesar’s TV hit Your Show of Shows. Based off of Auntie Mame writer Patrick Dennis’ 1961 book Little Me, a faux movie star tell-all autobiography of Belle Poitrine (french for “nice tits”) -- the book is complete with staged campy photographs and tells of her humble beginnings in a shantytown to her rise to fame and eventual decline.
The musical follows a similar plot trajectory, except that the main character of Belle will become the secondary character to the Star Comic’s turn as the loves in Belle’s life (and others). As told in flashbacks, older Belle, played by Mildred Hong, tells her story to Patrick Dennis (the handsome Blake Balu), as she is posing for her portrait – in stained glass! This framework allows the musical to be told in flashback sequences.
Our protagonist, young Belle Schlumpfert (Adriene Couvillion) is from “The Other Side of the Tracks”. Her shantytown upbringing is supervised by her mother (Francine Segal) – a delightfully loose-moraled “nurse” – well, not a nurse, but she likes to make people feel good. Belle is a little like Daisy Mae in Li’l Abner mixed with a twentieth century Cinderella. She encounters the preppy Noble Eggleston (Ricky Graham) and sparks fly (actually, Michael Batt’s kitschy lighting takes over with starbursts of hearts.) Noble invites Belle to the tony Sweet Sixteen party, and once there, Noble’s strict mother (Jo Ann Testa) explains to Noble that the Eggleston family name “goes back nearly 400 years, to the earliest rich people,” and that people from Belle’s social class don’t belong on this side of the tracks. Belle has a mission -- wanting “wealth and culture and social position,” and she’ll encounter the Shantytown’s miserly slumlord and banker Mr. Pinchley (Ricky Graham) and Pinchley Junior (a nerdy goof –Gary Rucker), convincing old Pinchley that there’s good in everyone, “Deep Down Inside.” Rucker also plays four other roles – notably talent agent Bennie Buschbaum to Sean Patterson’s Bernie Buschbaum. Patterson and Rucker have such a rapport together while on stage, they both play well off each other and really sell “Be a Performer” – their ode to the show-biz life. Patterson also plays five characters in the show, including the quick-changing German officer and American general, generally leaving the audience in stitches. Rounding out the principals is the Summer Lyric debut of Stephen Lukas as Lucky Musgrove. This well-toned young performer gets to do a male striptease for Belle, and really brings the house down with his strong physique and solid singing and dancing.
Choreographer and co-director Ed Kresley, along with director Michael Howard, have staged Little Me faithful to its original 1962 production, with a few flourishes reminiscent of the recent Martin Short revival on Broadway, capturing the essence and spirit of Bob Fosse’s expressive choreography and style. Kresley, who was influential in the American Dancemachine’s mission to preserve dance – specifically the work of Broadway choreographers, has recreated the madcap world of Fosse with the hootenanny “Deep Down Inside” and the character-driven “Rich Kid’s Rag” – which feature the chorus prominently.
In this show, the chorus, whether attired in cream-colored lace, petticoats, and morning suits for “The Rich Kid’s Rag” or turn-of-the-century peasant gear – really gets to show off their unique character chops, with quirkily talented dancers/singers, and many get the chance to have their moment in this madcap musical – the four can-can girls in “Boom Boom”: Chase Kamata (who also delights with other vocal solos throughout the show), Karen Ann Cox as Collette, the love interest of Val Du Val (again, Ricky Graham) – the sleazy night club entertainer with a penchant for Collette’s bass drum, Carrie Black and Chelsea Barker as the other two French can-can dancers. Graham interjects their interchangeable names – Crepe Suzette, Pere Marquette – and draws a hearty laugh from the crowd.
Summer Lyric favorites Susan Barrett Smith (in my favorite nurse costume ever), Andee Reed & Stephen Rizzo (as the ever faithful butler/masseur to Mildred Hong’s Belle) fill some of the smaller character parts with usual gusto. Much can be said about the ensemble: with a scarce two-weeks rehearsal, this talented group of performers gives it their all: with whiz-kid dancers and singers Brian Bell & P.J. McKinnie, Jennifer Marks, Jessica Gordon, Ken Goode, Brian Falgoust, Natalie Bopp, Michael Moore, Christopher Woods, Bruce Landry, Katie Howe, and John Haas rounding out the ensemble.
What astonishes me about Little Me is the amount of stage time for Adriene Couvillion and Ricky Graham, both rarely off stage. Couvillion has the somewhat thankless task of supporting Graham in his many hats, while moving the show’s plot forward. It’s a tough role to tackle, but Ms. Couvillion executes it flawlessly – she can belt big enough to fill Dixon Hall, and she possesses the charm and charisma necessary for this star part, without ever falling into the trappings of a typical ingénue role. Not to mention she has legs for days and well…she lives up to her character’s name in part thanks to Charlotte Lang’s costumes.
Ricky Graham glides through the script, keeping the show moving and genuinely funny. With anyone else in these parts, it’s easy to see how Little Me could fall to pieces. Little Me is a great spoof of musicals – with character driven dances, (a lot of) goofy romances, and some subtle winking to the audience. Directors Michael Howard and Ed Kresley, together with Graham, have crafted a zippy, zany world, one that Ricky Graham seems so comfortable inhabiting. Rick Paul’s spare. cartoon-like designs once again make great use of the confines of the stage area in Dixon Hall, with a whimsical unit set nodding to influences like Jean and William Eckart and Robert Randolph (the designer of the original Little Me). Charlotte Lang’s period costumes create vivid images of early 20th century Americana – both Belles have beautiful dresses throughout the show, and I particularly liked the suits for Bennie & Bernie, with a striking blue and charcoal window-paned plaid for Rucker and a charcoal and cream wide pinstripes for Patterson. The orchestra, under the direction of C. Leonard Raybon, sounds glorious, and it’s such a treat to attend a Summer Lyric show and experience the sound of “Old Broadway” with a full-sized orchestra nearing 25 pieces, complete with the city’s best musicians. Raybon also keeps the entire cast in tune together, and it’s a joy to sit back and listen to Little Me. It’s a shame that a show like Little Me only plays one weekend – with broad appeal, and major star power like Graham, it deserves a longer run. But, that’s show business, folks, and in two more weeks Summer Lyric will have another offering with Graham’s take on Amos Hart in Chicago. Little Me, although an unusual choice for a musical, was made with Ricky Graham in mind -- it has paid off, with New Orleans audiences getting to experience a great comic in action in this rarely seen gem of a musical.