With Face the Music, Mel Miller's Musicals Tonight! has unearthed a glitterier gem than usual. This musical comedy by Moss Hart (book) and Irving Berlin (music and lyrics), originally produced on Broadway in 1932 and probably not heard or seen since, is a delight. The songs are clever or lovely or both; the book, though dated in the way that topical satire must be, is a hoot. The staging by Thomas Mills is breezy and inventive, and the performers that Miller has brought together are just grand.
Face the Music takes place during the depths of the Great Depression, when money is so tight that presumably even the upper-crust Astors, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers have to go to the Automat for lunch. Broadway impresario Hal Reisman is there too, when he runs into musical comedy star Kit and her boyfriend Pat. Together they hook up with Martin Van Buren Meshbesher, the only man with enough money to back their new show. Meshbesher is a cop (his money comes from one of those Little Tin Boxes that the Seabury Commission got so interested in; see Fiorello!). The show is a disaster, but a post-opening-night decision to make it smutty turns it into a hit and, somehow, saves the City treasury. And, oh yes, there's an investigation at the end, involving Seabury himself and a crooked judge.
It's complicated, foolish, and very funny. The score features a couple of standards, "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee" and "Soft Lights and Sweet Music." The real discovery here, though, is the rest of Berlin's work, which includes pastiches/parodies of much of what was on Broadway in the early 30s: a Helen Morgan-ish torch song called, bluntly, "Torch Song"; a Merman-esque beltfest called "You Must Be Born With It"; an Ira Gershwin-like paean to comic opera to close the show called "Investigation"; and—proving Berlin could kid himself as well as others—a rip-off of the Follies' anthem "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" entitled "My Beautiful Rhinestone Girl."
It's a swell score, and it's presented to advantage by this energetic and talented company. Particularly engaging are Nanne Puritz as Kit, big-voiced Randall Frizado as Reisman, Virginia Seidel as Meshbesher's ditzy wife, and Patrick Boyd and Vanessa Lemonides as the show's star dancing team. Stephan Stubbins and David Macaluso make strong impressions in a variety of roles. And Cynthia Collins, who is both glamorous and funny, stops the show with her rendition of "Torch Song."
Face the Music shows its age with a plethora of jokes that don't quite parse and a book so loosely and freewheelingly concocted that it makes Mamma Mia!'s look tight. But that doesn't mean it's not a pleasure to hear Moss Hart's witty words and Irving Berlin's merry melodies in the theatre. Musicals Tonight! continues to work miracles by reminding us of our rich American musical theatre tradition. Long may it wave.