‘Jerry’s Girls’ at York Theatre Company. (Photo: Russ Rowland via The Broadway Blog.)
By Matthew Wexler
Jerry Herman, who turned 86 years old last month, is having quite the comeback. Not that he needed it. The composer/lyricist has been a Broadway fixture for decades, having penned some of Broadway’s most iconic roles for women, including Hello, Dolly! and Mame, as well as other notable shows including Mack and Mabel, La Cage aux Folles, and A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.
York Theatre Company revisits Jerry’s Girls, a retrospective of his work, as part of its Musicals in Mufti series. With minimal staging and scores in hand, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, Christine Pedi, and Stephanie Umoh take on some of Herman’s most iconic songs with varying degrees of success.
Originally conceived as a cabaret show in 1981, Jerry’s Girls’ various incarnations led to a short-lived Broadway production, which starred Leslie Uggams, Dorothy Loudon and Chita Rivera, along with an ensemble of women. The evening needs star power — not necessarily in name, but the kind of presence and vocal power that can pluck these songs out of their various storylines and give them context. With a few exceptions, director Pamela Hunt does little to celebrate Herman’s songbook.
Part of the problem is the show’s construct, which feels like a Jerry Herman repertory company audition. The actresses have little interaction with one another, playing most of the songs to the audience. One of the greatest gifts of a well-written musical theater song is its ability to further storyline and character. These standalone numbers, while melodic and beautifully written, need the backbone of the stories from which they are taken.
Umoh, (who appeared as Sarah in the 2009 revival of Ragtime) is by far the most successful at interpreting the material and is tasked with such memorable numbers as “It Only Takes a Moment” (Hello, Dolly!), “I Won’t Send Roses” (Mack and Mabel), and “I Am What I Am” (La Cage aux Folles). Christine Pedi, known for spot-on impersonations in various incarnations of Forbidden Broadway, delivers deadpan humor but it’s hard not to hear inflections of an aging Liza Minnelli/Bernadette Peters in her voice, and one wonders what the real Pedi sounds like. D’Abruzzo is affected (not to be confused with “effective”) throughout the evening, resorting to wide eyes and unnecessary gesticulations that distract from the great source material.
Technical elements (including blurry slides designed by Justin West) do little to enhance the show, which can be forgiven given the “mufti” sensibility, but the show would be better served if the baby grand was placed center stage so musical director/pianist Eric Svejcar’s talents could be greater appreciated. It is a show about Jerry Herman’s music, after all, and if you’re a superfan, you might enjoy the evening despite its inconsistencies.
York Theatre Company
The Theatre at St. Peter’s
619 Lexington Ave. NYC
Through August 13
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.