Any production that includes show-stopping renditions of the rousing George and Ira Gershwin march "Strike Up the Band" and the duo's haunting torch song "The Man I Love" can't be all bad. Indeed, the Reprise! revival of this musical relic boasts a wealth of talented artists doing their utmost to resurrect a property that is about as moldy as the cheese factory where its story commences. Yet this staging of one of the three political satires from the Gershwin brothers (followed by Of Thee I Sing and Let Them Eat Cake) proves to be more interesting as historical curiosity than palatable entertainment.
Perhaps George S. Kaufman's silly and plodding book seemed like trenchant antiwar, anti-big-business satire when the show premiered, in 1927, but its story about a battle between Swiss and American cheese manufacturers is riddled with holes, playing out as low-comedy hokum. And the score, with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by brother Ira—inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan, with flashes of Jerome Kern—is more serviceable than quintessential, despite the aforementioned classics. Director Don Amendolia makes a valiant stab at energizing this rancid mix of second-rate operetta and vaudevillian shtick, but perhaps an out-and-out camp approach might have been more effective.
In that context, Charles Nelson Reilly's problematic lead performance would have at least made a bit of sense. Reilly is always a likable performer, but his lack of preparation here results in more fluster than bluster. He relies on his trademark curmudgeonly persona, which has little to do with the character of conniving cheese magnate Horace Fletcher, who instigates a war between the United States and Switzerland to further his own business interests. We get more Horace Vandergelder than Horace Fletcher.
Further reducing the material to cheesy kitsch, Joe Joyce, as the multipurpose character George Spelvin, essays a contrived Groucho Marx impersonation. Otherwise, the cast members do the best they can with the lumbering material. Ruth Williamson has fine moments as an opportunistic society matron, Mrs. Draper, stealing many a scene with her uproarious histrionics. Melissa Dye sings gorgeously and is captivating as Fletcher's defiant daughter, and she is matched by the charming performance of Michael Maguire as her love interest. Hope Levy and Tony Britton-Johnson also enchant in secondary romantic roles. The ensemble sings and dances competently, aided by Gene Castle's dazzling choreography and Peter Matz's vibrant musical direction. Scott A. Lane's costumes are attractive. Robert L. Smith's scenic design is bare-bones and unobtrusive, and Tom Ruzika's lighting is likewise efficient.
This production points out a Catch-22 in the current trend toward concert staging of musicals. As companies strive to enter the big leagues—moving away from their original "concert" concept toward full-fledged treatments of the book and score—the reasons why certain shows exist primarily on CD become painfully evident.
"Strike Up the Band," presented by Reprise! Broadway's Best at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, corner of Sunset and Hilgard Avenue. Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7 p.m. (Sun. Mar. 4 at 2 p.m.). Feb. 21-Mar. 4. $55. (213) 365-3500 and (714) 740-7878.