Call Me Madam

Call Me Madam
Music & lyrics by Irving Berlin, book by Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse

Sally Adams – Beverley Klein
Cosmo Constantine – Gido Schimanski
Princess Maria – Kate Nelson
Kenneth Gibson – Chris Love
Pemberton Maxwell – Matthew Trevannion
Gallagher – Rob Wilshaw
Wilkins – Chris Neumann

Ensemble – Flora Dawson, Meg Gallagher, Grace Harrington, Samir Khan, Katie Pritchard, Ema Shenton, Tasha Taylor Johnson & Khiley Williams

Alex Weatherill / Tom Fowkes – Musical Director / Piano; Henry Spencer / Andy Watts, Alex Fletcher, David Stoneham, James Williams – Trumpet / Flugelhorn; Richard Cooper, Hannah Lawrence, Vicky Cowles & Andrew Loveridge – Reeds; Greg Rawson – Percussion

Thom Southerland – Director
Nick Robinson – Producer
Drew McOnie – Choreographer
Alison Brookes – Costume & Set Designer
Richard Patch – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 14 July, 2009
Venue: Upstairs Theatre at The Gatehouse, Highgate Village, London N6

In 1950 the subject of Irving Berlin’s musical “Call Me Madam” was a Washington socialite from a rich Oklahoma oil family. Her name was Perle Mesta. Widowed at the age of 31, she was left a fortune by her steel magnate husband, money that she put to use in supporting good causes including the Democrat President Harry S. Truman who duly appointed Perle Ambassador to Luxembourg (from 1949 to 1953). She was the original “hostess with the mostes’”, the title of one of the most famous numbers from Berlin’s show. However, “Call Me Madam” uses a fictitious name for its heroine, calling her Sally Adams, while the writers Lindsay and Crouse set the show in what they call “two mythical countries; one is Lichtenburg, the other the United States of America”.

Basically it is a satire on the way America insists on helping other countries by throwing money at them, whether they want it or not. Sally Adams is an innocent abroad who knows nothing about politics or diplomacy but only how to have a good time. When she finds out how small the Duchy of Lichtenburg is, she declares, “I’ll be the only person to give a party and invite the whole country”. Seeing that the country needs help, she offers thousands of dollars to get it out of trouble and also takes a shine to Lichtenburg’s Foreign Minister, Cosmo Constantine, while her press attaché Kenneth Gibson falls for Princess Maria. So, here we have two love-stories muddled up with some political satire in a jolly romp that in its day was a huge success for Ethel Merman. The show took advance bookings of over one-million dollars. It ran in New York for eighteen months and then toured. Then the American Billie Worth played it in London for over a year. Oddly enough there have been relatively few revivals in the US: a semi-staged concert version with Tyne Daly in 1995 and a production in New Jersey with Leslie Uggams in 1996. In London Noelle Gordon, of “Crossroads” fame, revived it at the Victoria Palace in 1983 but not successfully. The 1953 film with Merman, George Sanders, Donald O’Connor and Vera-Ellen was, however, a smash hit.

It’s good to see “Call Me Madam” back on the boards. Director Thom Southerland has been re-staging classic American musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Pajama Game”, “Oklahoma!”, and “Mack and Mabel”. He recently secured the rights for the UK premiere of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and has Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair” coming to the Finborough Theatre. Using small venues, he makes the best of the limited spaces, filling them with quite intricate routines. Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate has more room than most pub venues for Southerland to manoeuvre his chorus. The band is placed at the back on a raised platform to leave the playing area for the action and energetic dancing.

It’s a very hard-working company, its members rarely off the stage with numbers such as ‘Washington Square Dance’, ‘The Ocarina’ and ‘Something to Dance About’. Of course, Irving Berlin’s songs help immeasurably. He knew how to place a number and make it work. Since most television and radio programmes nowadays ignore the treasures from the golden age of the American musical, on this opening night an audience of youngsters probably had their first taste of a real Broadway show and a clutch of songs that have a point to make. These include ‘The Hostess with the Mostes’ on the Ball’ which introduces Sally and gives a potted history of her life (“I was born on thousand acres of Oklahoma land”); or ‘Can You Use Any Money Today’ which demonstrates both her own generosity and the way America goes about buying countries. The love-songs also explain the action: ‘Marrying for Love’ finds Cosmo looking for the woman rather than the dollars, while ‘The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me)’ is a duet in which Sally and Cosmo finally realise they are made for one another. There’s a similar song when Kenneth and Maria first meet, ‘It’s a Lovely Day Today’ which, although it says more about the weather, finds the two younger lovers connecting romantically. One song has been dropped for this production, ‘They Like Ike’, which became a campaign song for President Eisenhower and was subsequently banned by US radio stations for being too partisan.

Berlin wrote his show for a star. In the 1950s there was none bigger than Ethel Merman. In Beverley Klein this production has the current best. As Mrs Lovett in “Sweeney Todd”, Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof”, The Witch in “Into the Wood” and The Old Lady in “Candide”, Klein has proved that she is one of the UK’s best leading ladies in musical comedy. Here she really gets into the personality of Sally Adams and certainly as much as Merman ever did. She can be funny and sweet and serious too and lights up the stage. I look forward to her Dolly Levi and her Auntie Mame, which she surely must do. Her highlight in “Call Me Madam” is ‘You’re Just in Love’ in which Berlin presents two tunes in counterpoint, sung by Sally and Kenneth as they bemoan their romantic fates. It was the hit of the original production: Merman needed a big number towards the end of the show so, at the last minute, Berlin wrote this for her.

The mostly young company is well-drilled for Drew McOnie’s spirited choreography brought off with pizzazz. Gido Schimanski is requisitely restrained and gentlemanly as Cosmo, Chris Love and Kate Nelson make a winsome couple of young lovers and Matthew Trevannion is suitably sour as the manipulating major-domo Pemberton Maxwell.Great show, great cast, and another success for Thom Southerland.

  • Call Me Madam is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until Sunday 16 August 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday at 7.30 p.m., matinee Sunday at 4 p.m.
  • Tickets 020 8340 3488
  • Upstairs at the Gatehouse

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