Jason Graae stars as all the men who woo the irresistible Belle Poitrine (Teressa Byrne) in the 42nd Street Moon production of Little Me at the Eureka Theatre. Below: Graae is Prince Cherney and Sharon Rietkerk is young Belle. Photos by David Allen
My faith in the good ol’ American star-making machine is kaput. Any yahoo with a access to a “reality” show camera crew gets 15 minutes and all the nonsensical covers of ridiculous magazines they could wish for. Or singers of dubious talent get in front of a national audience singing notes by the pound with no understanding of (or interest in) the songs they’re macerating.
And then you have journeymen performers like Jason Graae, who by all rights should be an enormous star, doing stellar work that is seen by far too few. I get worked up every time I see Graae perform because something is definitely not right that his dynamic performer with a golden voice and flawless comic timing hasn’t already had several hit sitcoms, won a couple of Tony Awards, sold millions of albums, had a few plum roles on the big screen and written at least one tell-all memoir. In another era, all of the above would be true, but the truth is, Graae is a genius in a world of show biz that has come and gone (and may yet come again – if we’re lucky).
Lest you think I’m exaggerating, go see Graae play seven leading men in 42nd Street Moon’s production of Little Me, a 1962 musical tailored to the talents of Sid Caesar. The irresistible score by Cy Coleman (music) and Carolyn Leigh (lyrics) features delightful songs like “I’ve Got Your Number,” “On the Other Side of the Tracks,” “Deep Down Inside” and “Here’s to Us” among others, and though you may leave humming a few tunes, what really lingers is the rip-roaring book by Neil Simon (adapted from novel Little Me: The Intimate Memoirs of That Great Star of Stage, Screen and Television, Belle Poitrine, as told to Patrick Dennis).
Act 2 is kind of a letdown, comically speaking, but there’s so much effervescent good will left over from the hearty laughs of Act 1 it hardly matters. And the real reason to see this production is Graae’s master class in musical comedy. His first (and most frequently recurring) character is Noble Eggleston, a blue blood from the right side of the tracks who falls for exactly the wrong girl, an impoverished Belle Shlumpfert from Drifter’s Row (definitely the wrong side of the tracks). Theirs is a love for the ages – you can tell because music plays every time they touch – and they’ll spend most of their lives pining for one another and just missing the chance to be happy in one another’s arms.
While Noble heads off to Harvard and Yale, where he’ll become a doctor and a lawyer (and a war hero), Belle makes it her life’s mission to become worthy of Noble’s love by attaining wealth, culture and social position. This quest leads Belle into the arms of all the wrong men, all happily played by Graae.
This story is told by Older Belle (Teressa Byrne) as she regales her biographer (Caleb Haven Draper as Patrick Dennis) with stories of her colorful past, and Younger Belle is played by Sharon Rietkerk, a spirited and big-voiced leading lady who is more than up to the challenge of keeping up with Graae while still managing to get some great laughs on her own. They are a delightful pairing, and it’s easy to see why Belle and Noble are so hooked on one another.
My favorite of Graae’s characters is the clueless Fred Poitrine, an inexperienced farm boy on his way to the European theater of World War I. Graae does idiocy brilliantly, but he also does it with heart. Fred’s big number, “Real Live Girl,” is as sweetly heartbreaking as it is funny.
When you’ve got someone as sure-footed as Graae going for big laughs onstage, you kind of want things to go wrong, at least a little bit. When the comedy train is going full speed, you can’t stop it – you just have to make sure everyone stays on board then stoke the engine a little more. That’s what happened with Graae on opening night when a pistol accidentally fell out of his pants (no really, he was just happy to see us) and, while playing French performer Val DuVal, his moustache kept sliding all over his face. Those were some of the funniest moments of the 2 ½-hour show, but there are plenty of sizable laughs built into Simon’s script, and they usually have something to do with rich people making fun of poor people or poor people sacrificing anything to escape their grim reality.
Aside from the joys of Graae and Rietkerk, director Eric Inman’s production is a hit-and-miss affair, and it’s impossible to laugh over the shortcomings of Act 2 (the highlight of which is Rietkerk and Byrne singing the title song). But music director Brandon Adams, at the piano alongside Nick Di Scala on woodwinds, keeps the electricity of Coleman’s score surging, and the sheer enjoyment of watching Graae do such good work diminishes any sense of letdown in the show itself.
Little Me may not be a genius piece of musical theater, but when you have leading players as appealing as Graae and Rietkerk and delivering superstar turns, the Little charms go a long, long way.
I interviewed Jason Graae for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here. [subscription may be required]
FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Little Me continues through May 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.