The Happiest Girl in the World
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 24, 2006
As someone who has pored over diverse theatre history and reference books for decades, I am always excited when an obscure old musical gets produced by one of New York's spiky off-off/indie theater companies. Oftentimes I discover a neglected gem, or at least something intriguingly ahead of its time (or edifyingly of it). Of course once in a while what turns up is a dud—a show that doesn't cry out one bit to be revisited but instead merely reaffirms its obtuseness in performance.
Alas, The Happiest Girl in the World falls squarely in this latter category. Originally produced on Broadway in 1961, this show features lyrics by the great E.Y. Harburg (Finian's Rainbow, The Wizard of Oz), collaborating here not with a living composer but instead the long-dead Jacques Offenbach. The book is by Fred Saidy and Henry Myers (as adjusted by the director of this revival, Barbara Vann; she's thrown in at least one scene from the original source material, Aristophanes's Lysistrata, plus a too-earnest sequence in which soldiers on stage talk about wars, from the Peloponnesian to the current one in Iraq).
As just noted, the inspiration is Lysistrata, the ancient Greek comedy that tells what happens when the women of Athens decide to withhold sex from their husbands and lovers until the men stop fighting wars. The U.S. wasn't embroiled in a war back in 1961, and so I wonder how this tepid anti-war satire felt when there wasn't a particular war to be anti; against the current Iraq debacle it feels weak to the point of near-uselessness. The main reason why is that Harburg and his collaborators don't seem much interested in this aspect of the show at all. Instead, the focus of The Happiest Girl in the World is almost exclusively on sex, or in this case the absence thereof; the thing plays like a long, smutty, and not very funny joke told by a bunch of middle-aged guys without much imagination.
There is, for example, a song called "Whatever That May Be" whose implicit subject is the genitalia of men and women, unknown in purpose to the virginal goddess Diana who sings about them. There's a number called "Viva La Virtue" and another called "Never Trust a Virgin." Most embarrassingly there's a listless can-can (set to Offenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld") in which the frustrated Greek soldiers kick up their phalluses in pathetic unison. (The phalluses are long, limpid stuffed appendages, not the more usual fully erect kind, which makes this number even stranger.)
The star of the show is the god of the underworld Pluto (who appears in various other guises throughout); he was played by Cyril Ritchard in the original production, who is hard to replace (though Mark Dempsey gives his all to the role). There are occasional flashes of Harburg's signature wit in a couple of his songs: "Never Bedevil the Devil," which is about precisely what its title suggests, and "Love-Sick Serenade." But most of the songs here find the great lyricist singularly lacking in inspiration or distinction; an exception is the comely love song "Five Minutes of Spring," assigned to Lysistrata's husband and sometime adversary, the Greek general Kinesias.
Yes, Lysistrata and Kinesias do make appearances in the show, but they're given so little stage time that they barely make an impression. Indeed, the outlines of the familiar play are evident here, just not adapted in an interesting enough way to make us understand why we should care about this several-thousand-year-old play.
Director Vann keeps the show moving reasonably competently, but her uneven cast is mostly not up to the task of delivering the material effectively. Apart from Dempsey, the main standouts in the company are Samuel H. Perwin as Kinesias, who sings quite well, and Sky Seals, who plays Apollo, a Satyr, and other characters with a significant amount of panache. The production design is definitely at the low-end of the off-off spectrum, with the costumes particularly problematic: when the outfits being worn by the male chorus are very clearly made out of bed sheets, something is wrong.
Pianist Michael Dion does a fine job playing the Offenbach music, which is mostly quite lovely.
Vann and her company, Medicine Show, have revived The Happiest Girl in the World before; if that production revealed the show to be as much a shambles as this one does, it's mind-boggling to understand why they're mounting it again. This is far from Harburg's finest hour; even the convoluted Flahooley! is many times more worthy than this thing. Some shows do not stand the test of time and deserve to stay forgotten, and this one, I'm sad to report, is one of them.