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David Finkle

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First Nighter: Smash's Hilty Does Right by Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but Is No Marilyn Monroe

Posted: 05/10/2012 5:34 pm

If a reviewer decided to adhere to the old maxim about comparisons being odious in the case of the City Center Encores! series Gentlemen Prefer Blondes concert reading, he'd be obliged to say that Megan Hilty does a solid job as Lorelei Lee.

She gets her laughs on the lines Anita Loos and Joseph Fields supplied the deceptively savvy, supposedly dumb blonde Loos first immortalized in her 1920s Harper's Bazaar sketches and eventually published in novel form. Wearing a dazzling gown on which costumer David C. Woolard consulted, Hilty delivers an applause-reaping "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." Indeed, throughout the show, she acquits herself as well as might be hoped and expected.

If, on the other hand, a reviewer admits it's impossible to sit through any Gentlemen Prefer Blondes iteration without flashing on the previous two attention-demanding Lorelei Lees -- Carol Channing on Broadway in 1949 (following her scintillating Great White Way bow the previous year as the Gladiola Girl in Lend an Ear) and Marilyn Monroe in the 1953 flick -- Hilty doesn't fare so well.

The truth is that proficient as she may be, she lacks the whatever-it-is -- the je ne sais quoi -- that Channing and Monroe had that made Lorelei such a forceful, such an unforgettable presence. This isn't to say there is any obligation for Hilty to replicate either Channing or Monroe, neither of whom was like the other.

Or maybe it is to say there is pressure on her to bring her own what-is-it to the party, her own indefinable charisma on an exalted par with Channing, a super-smart actor who developed a particularly high-wattage persona to which she's adhered throughout her career, and Monroe, a questionable actor by standard definitions but possessed of a quality no one since has come close to manifesting.

It could be that Hilty appeared to be the most obvious choice to impersonate Lorelei on the basis of her Smash television series character Ivy, who's vying for the Monroe role in a planned Broadway musical bio to be called idiotically Bombshell. Actually, though, Hilty's abilities give the impression of being in direct opposition to the Loos creation.

Extremely effective, even charismatic, in Smash, Hilty plays a conniving hopeful infrequently required to be giddily amusing. As Ivy attempts by hook or crook to land the Monroe part, Hilty is an expert at letting viewers see her devious mind working overtime.

This is never true of Lorelei, which leaves Hilty -- certainly a sexy blonde, no matter how you slice it -- simply playing by the numbers under John Rando's direction. She can't be faulted on her endeavors, founded as they are on commendable acting and singing chops. But by the same token, she can't be acclaimed as blazingly inimitable in her own right.

Nor, by the way, is she or anyone else in the singing-dancing-joking cast helped by the wardrobe consultant Woolard has put together. Aside from the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" stunner, the clothes on Hilty and on every one of the women are almost consistently bereft of style.

So, with Hilty filling her part adequately but offering too little beyond that, a curious thing happens to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: The property's mediocrity is as exposed as if a policemen's interrogation light had illuminated it. Its strung-together-sketch beginnings are there for all to see as Lorelei and gal-pal Dorothy Shaw (Rachel York) accumulate men while sailing on the Ile de France and then larking about Paris because Lorelei believes her intended, Gus Esmond Jr. (Clarke Thorell), has dropped her at the insistence of his tycoon dad, Gus Esmond Sr. (Brennan Brown).

The more the libretto ambles through scenes involving additional personages like strait-laced Dorothy-pursuer Henry Spofford (Aaron Lazar), his tippling mother Mrs. Ella Spofford (Deborah Rush), womanizing duffer Sir Francis Beekman (Simon Jones), his mah-jongg-playing spouse Lady Phyllis Beekman (Sandra Shipley), and several chiseled-abs members of the 1924 Olympic team, the more it becomes apparent the enterprise rises and falls on the pluses and minuses of the Leo Robin-Jule Styne score and the routines constructed from them.

Lucky, too, since many of the songs -- chief among them, "I'm Just a Little Girl From Little Rock," "Bye, Bye Baby" and the title tune -- shine, and the lesser ones are engaging as they pass, for which music director-conductor Rob Berman certainly earns kudos. Moreover, the well-crafted ditties offer choreographer Randy Skinner the chance to turn them into rousing, often surpassingly athletic routines.

Not only is Skinner, a tap authority, able to leap at the chance, but he has dancers on hand more than up to the demands he puts on them. For one glittering example, he shapes a specialty turn for Nicholas Brothers-like Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes and Megan Sikora at the end of which the audience response goes on even longer than it does for Hilty's "Diamonds" setting. Hey, maybe the twinkling Sikora as forever practicing Gloria might have been the Lorelei the undertaking needed to soar above its limited parts.

With performers like York, Sikora, the always funny Jones, smooth crooners Lazar and Thorell, the daft Steven Boyer as steward Pierre, York as appealing brunette Dorothy and, yes, Hilty, this Gentleman Prefer Blondes is okay. But it's not one that, in the end, gentlemen and their equally discerning ladies would necessarily prefer.

 
 
 
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