The Beauty Prize
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 27, 2005
Most 82 year old musicals haven't aged well; The Beauty Prize proves a delightful exception. It was written in 1923 by Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, and George Grossmith, and although it's never been produced in New York until right now (it was a hit in London, however), it's a most welcome find. Mel Miller and Musicals Tonight! have done it again.
Act One is mostly exposition—quite a lot of it, in fact. John Brooke, a handsome, suave, and perhaps somewhat profligate young Englishman, has fallen in love. The object of his affection is Carol Stuart, a beautiful American who, he thinks, hasn't a sou. (She thinks he's poor too—he told her he works as a clerk in the Foreign Office.) Carol, though, is at least as rich as John—she's the daughter of a rich New England businessman. Both are looking, of course, for someone to love them for themselves, rather than for their money, and it looks like they've found just that.
But all sorts of complications conspire to keep the lovers apart. Carol, it seems, has been entered in a beauty contest by a dim but well-meaning hat salesgirl named Lovey Toots; first prize is a husband, one Odo Philpott. Carol, naturally, wins. On the very day that she is to marry John, Odo arrives, ready to commence a six-month trial engagement prior to their nuptials. Carol's British chaperone, the acerbic Fannie, meanwhile, has spilled the beans about Carol's wealth to John, in hopes of winning him for herself. John, furious that Carol has tried to "buy" his love, breaks off with her.
Act Two finds everybody, perhaps a little improbably, on the same cruise ship to America. It is very funny. Odo, who is as good-natured a British twit as Wodehouse ever created, becomes the soul of the ship, organizing all kinds of events and winning all of the sports contests. Carol can't stand him; nor can John abide Lovey (I forgot to tell you that at the end of Act One he decided to marry her on the rebound). John's best pal and secretary, Flutey, tries to set things right by urging Carol and John to send themselves telegrams to the effect that they've been ruined; that way, they both can swallow their pride and admit their love for one another. But the scheme backfires when the ever-helpful Odo nobly decides that he and Lovey—who have fallen in love en voyage—must stand by their now impoverished fiances.
Act Three—very quickly—sorts it all out.
The songs are plentiful and pretty. There's a lovely chorale called "Joy Bells" that contains some very sophisticated harmonies; a sweet love song for Carol and John called "For the Man I Love"; an interesting number that recurs throughout called "Take the Road with Me"; and a very lovely ballad sung by John in the first scene whose name is not noted in the program. There are also several charming songs commenting on a variety of '20s fads—one about mah jongg, one about the then-still-novel Marconi telegraph ("You Can't Make Love By Wireless"), and another very witty one about American middle class life as viewed by Sinclair Lewis ("Main Street"). This being a very primitive musical comedy, the songs often don't appear where you expect them—some pop up entirely out of the blue, with no apparent motivation; and there are any number of emotional moments where no song occurs even though it feels like one ought to. (This, for me, is one of the most interesting and fun aspects of looking in on a very old show.) But Kern's melodies are bright and the lyrics are surprisingly fresh.
Wodehouse & Grossmith's book—especially in the second act—is very witty and not so dated as you might think. A predilection for Wodehouse's trademark characters is probably helpful here: Bertie Wooster and Jeeves aren't exactly on hand, but shades of many of the others—Honoria Glassop and Bingo Little in particular—are clearly evident, and the goofy sophistication of Wodehouse's stories pervades the piece, along with his grand sense of humor. There is one line in the second act that made me laugh out loud for a good five or ten seconds.
As usual with Musicals Tonight! presentations, this is a concert-style staging with limited production values and the cast still working with script in hand (to their credit, many of them didn't seem to need it). Thomas Mills provides his usual witty staging, and Rick Hip-Flores is the fine accompanist. The cast of sixteen is generally very good, with the clear standout Mike Masters, who is very funny as Odo—he seems completely in tune with the Wodehouse sensibility in a way that few other actors, here or elsewhere, are able to manage. Sean Hayden, most welcome on a New York stage after several years away, is excellent as handsome leading man John Brooke and sings his songs beautifully. Kelly Grant's operatic soprano is a little jarring for Carol, however, and Justin Sayre doesn't really have a handle on Flutey at all (he's playing Noel Coward feyness when Jeeves-style unflappability seems to be what's called for). But Mary Jo Mecca (Fannie), Adrienne Pisoni (Kitty), and Roger Rifkin (as Carol's manservant and later, in Act Three, her father) offer expert support in smaller roles.
I always find Musicals Tonight!'s recreations of lost musicals like this one fascinating; The Beauty Prize has the added pleasure of being delightfully entertaining as well. This is a must-see entry in this worthy off-off-Broadway musical series.