The 1928 musical comedy Whoopee, a hit for Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting, has as flimsy a plot as many shows of the time. It should be noted that such plots had little effect on the success of a musical.
Sally Morgan (Katie Emerson) is betrothed to Sherriff Bob (Morgan McCann) as payment of a debt incurred by her rancher father (Ronald L. Brown.) Her real sweetheart Wanenis (Lee Hollis Bussie), is an American Indian just graduated from an Ivy League college (?!) Neither her father nor his, Chief Black Eagle (Roger Rifkin), approves. Determined not to wed the blowhard cowboy, Sally lies to sweet hypochondriac Henry (Blake Joseph), in turn pursued by “nurse” Mary (Amie Bermowitz), leaves a note saying she’s eloping with Henry, and drives out of town with her unwitting rescuer. The duo end up masquerading as cooks at the ranch of Mr. Underwood (Tony Triano) the richest man in Arizona – also a hypochondriac, his son Chester (Brian Knoebel, who unfortunately actually looks like Cantor), and his man eating daughter Harriet (Elise Castle.) Here, they’re found, lost, found, lost, found and things are resolved.
Whoopee contains four iconic numbers: “Makin’ Whoopee,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” popularized by Etting, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” perhaps impetus for producer Mel Miller to mount the piece. In his review of the 1979 revival, Richard Eder of The New York Times referred to “a superabundance of songs.” Where? The show is book heavy=clunky, jokes fall flat, scene transitions are many and awkward. Perhaps elaborate choreography and chorus made up for the rest in other productions. Brendan Gill panned the 1979 iteration referring to the original. I’m afraid I agree.
The vocal performance best representative of its period is Amie Bermowitz’s (Mary) “Love Me or Leave Me.” Bermowitz has a feel for sultry inflection, solid phrasing and vibrato-filled constancy. Direction, alas, is neither sexy nor comic. Katie Emerson (Sally) and Blake Joseph (Henry) both have good voices. Emerson suffers from a pastiche style of acting that blinks erratically on and off. Decision either way would help. Joseph has cute moments, but, except for his knees, seems physically and facially stiff, unimaginable with Cantor.
Morgan McCann’s Sherriff Bob is aptly one dimensional, his bravado enjoyably robust. McCann gets that a character must be played believably to evoke humor. Also skillful with this necessary approach is Tony Triano as Mr. Underwood, a role sustained by convincing bluster/apoplexy and Brian Knoebel in the small, but well manifest part of Chester.
I saw this opening night. Undoubtedly, the cast will settle in eliciting more fluency. Still, I miss the spirited, choreographed numbers by Thomas Sabella-Mills I’ve seen in past shows. There’s only one here that shifts the company around with any charm. A love song in a canoe is particularly well realized; characters move on their hidden knees as the floating boat would demand.
Photos by Michael Portantiere:
Opening Shot: Blake Henry & Katie Emerson
2. Morgan McCann, Nicholas Kuhn, Jeff Smith, Katie Emerson, (partially hidden) Matthew Ragas, Jonathan Horvath, Jared Green
3. Amie Bermowitz & Blake Joseph; Blake Joseph & Tony Triano
Musicals Tonight presents
Whoopee! (Eddie Cantor’s Hit Show)
Music-Walter Donaldson; Lyrics – Gus Kahn; Libretto – William Anthony McGuire
Director/Choreographer – Thomas Sabella-Mills
Music Director/Vocal Arranger-David B. Bishop
The Lion Theater
410 West 42nd Street
Through March 15, 2015
Next: Hazel Flagg by Jule Styne March 17-29