Rose Theatre

at the Westin Hotel O’Hare

It certainly sounds like a good idea. After all, Jerry Herman has written some of Broadway’s most memorable songs. A melody line springs to mind at the mere mention of such titles as “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame,” “If He Walked Into My Life,” and “I Am What I Am.” A revue made up solely of his songs should be a surefire hit, especially in the hands of David Dillon, who just won the Jeff Award for best play with his production of The Normal Heart.

But apparently such a revue is more difficult to stage than it seems. I’ve seen two radically different productions of this show. One was a lavish, Broadway-bound extravaganza starring Carol Channing, Leslie Uggams, and Andrea McArdle. The other was Dillon’s version, which just opened at the Rose Theatre in the Westin Hotel O’Hare. Although they were irritating in different ways, both were very irritating, and I’m beginning to wonder if a revue of Herman’s songs is such a good idea after all.

Whatever the problems are, they can’t be blamed on Jerry Herman. His songs are relentlessly light, bright, and lilting–which is just how he likes them. He wants people to leave the theater humming, and he laughs when he’s accused of being too commercial. “That’s like saying the bride is too pretty,” he once told an interviewer. “To me, the ultimate compliment is being called commercial. I love the word commercial. Commercial is my middle name!”

Obviously, this guy aims to please, and he certainly has succeeded in pleasing a lot of people.

But Herman writes show tunes, and when his songs are taken out of context, directors apparently feel an irresistible urge to surround them with spectacle.

In the Broadway-bound version, the three stars were given license to ham it up shamelessly, which quickly became tedious. Carol Channing, for example, wore baggy long underwear when she played an ugly stripper being urged to “put it back on,” and the song seemed endless.

But Herman did not intend Jerry’s Girls to be staged so lavishly. The show began as an intimate cabaret act at Ted Hook’s Onstage in New York City, where it ran for a year. Then producer Zev Buffman got his hands on it, and pumped it up into a Broadway extravaganza.

OK, so inflating it was a bad idea. But Dillon, despite his intention to return the revue to its original form, has succumbed to the same temptation. He simplified the visuals by reducing everything to black and white (except for a few brightly colored props), but then had Brigid Brown design some tacky costumes that make the women look like office workers who are going to a party straight from work. He reduced the orchestra to a piano, percussion, and bass, but then made the three musicians as distracting as possible by putting them right on stage.

Worst of all, he hired five inexperienced performers, and then tried to keep them in perpetual motion. The relentless movement, choreographed by Marc Robin, seems to distract the women, especially Anne Kanengeiser and Anne Dekom, who sometimes have trouble holding a tune as they scramble from pose to pose. When they stand still, they all sing quite nicely. In fact, two of the best numbers of the show–“I Don’t Want to Know” and “I Am What I Am”–are performed by Elena Ferrante, who stands motionless in a single spotlight.

But such pleasant interludes are rare. Most of the time, the women are instructed to mug and overact, especially in the early numbers. When they have nothing else to do, they illustrate the lyrics. During “It Only Takes a Moment,” when Anne Dekom sings “he held me for an instant” she hugs herself, apparently to help any hard-of-hearing patrons.

Some of the illustrations are simply weird. During “We Need a Little Christmas,” from Mame, Lori Hammel appears as an enormously pregnant woman who is lifted onto a platform and decorated like a Christmas tree by her four cohorts, who hang ornaments from her glasses, and wrap a garland around her neck.

As it turns out, Hammel is also dressed as a pregnant woman for the next number, “Gooch’s Song,” which is also from Mame. She plays a young woman who takes Mame’s advice to live a little, and now must bear the consequences–literally. “I went out and found my prince, and have I been nauseous ever since.” The number works, primarily because Hammel is an adept actress as well as a singer.

Beth Broadwater also does a nice job with the relatively simple versions of “Wherever He Ain’t” and “Look What Happened to Mabel,” from Mack and Mabel.

But if the revue is ever going to work, it must get back to basics, and the basics are Jerry Herman’s words and music. Just let the “girls” (how did Herman get away with such a sexist title?) sing the hell out of these songs, and don’t even try to create miniversions of the musicals they come from. If Herman is truly a legendary songwriter, his work ought to be able to stand on its own–without any support from inane skits.

Despite all its faults, this production of Jerry’s Girls might do all right. The Westin’s guests are a captive audience–there’s not much else to do in Rosemont besides watch planes landing and taking off.