Candlelight Dinner Playhouse

A wealthy, middle-aged woman–an erstwhile movie actress and perpetual social climber who got her start in Chicago but got out of there as quick as she could–invites a ghostwriter to help her write a memoir that she hopes will retrieve her reputation from the numerous “besmirchments” it has suffered over more years than she cares to admit to. These “besmirchments” include aspersions cast on her mother, condescending comments about her own taste and integrity, and accusations that she slept around to get parts, neglected her children while proclaiming her love for “the family,” and spent her entire life concerned with nothing but acquiring money and social status. She, of course, says she did none of these things; she was only a victim of circumstances who spent her life devoted to the true love she felt for one man through thick and thin.

Is it Nancy Reagan rebutting Kitty Kelley’s biography? No, it’s Belle Poitrine (nee Schlumpfert)–star of stage (OK, burlesque) and screen, destined to leave acting for the lifetime role of a politician’s wife. She was born on the wrong side of the tracks in Venezuela, Illinois, where her mother settled after coming north “from the finest house in New Orleans”–that’s house, not home. Later, Belle made her way through a series of bizarre incidents, including a murder charge (unjustified, of course), the sinking of a Titanic-like ocean liner, war work (she did all she could for the brave boys who fought in World War I), and several marriages and romances, nearly all of which proved strangely lethal to the men involved. With the aid of her faithful ghostwriter, Belle intends to put forth the true account of the action-packed career that finally led her to find God and happiness in Southampton.

Belle Poitrine (the French name means, essentially, “nice tits”) is the heroine of Little Me, the elaborately funny 1961 novel by Patrick Dennis, the Chicagoland-bred humorist best known for his Auntie Mame. Dennis made a career of spoofing the gauche noncharm of the bourgeoisie of the 1920s and ’30s, and Little Me was his masterpiece–a brilliant sustained joke in which Belle’s self-serving first-person narrative reveals all the avarice, pettiness, and trampiness she has spent a lifetime denying.

More than an individual, Belle was a satiric representative (as Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge was later) of the American glamour industry’s simultaneous exploitation and idealization of women. Little Me skewered the shills and sluts of the entertainment business, just as Shepherd Mead’s parodic handbook How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying skewered the boys in the boardrooms and the girls in the secretarial pools of the corporate community at around the same time. So when Broadway producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin scored a smash with their musical version of Mead’s book in 1961, it made sense to pick Dennis’s novel as a follow-up for the next season.

But Feuer and Martin must have realized from the start that Dennis’s bawdy book would have to be sanitized for the mainstream stage; so they played down the innuendo and played up the farce by making their 1962 musical- comedy version of Little Me a vehicle not for the actress playing Belle, but for comedian Sid Caesar, as at least some of the many men who pass through Belle’s life. To fashion the show for Caesar’s special talents (in particular his gift for eccentric and foreign caricatures), they hired one of Caesar’s writers–a young guy named Neil Simon, whose previous play, Come Blow Your Horn, had been a Broadway success. Simon was a gag writer, and he delivered the goods Feuer and Martin wanted–even if at this point in his development he was nowhere near as witty or shrewd as Abe Burrows, who had concocted How to Succeed.

For songs, they also chose a team of relative newcomers instead of the proven pro Frank Loesser, who had written How to Succeed’s jazzy, brilliant score. In the 1960 Wildcat, starring Lucille Ball, composer Cy Coleman and lyricist Carolyn Leigh had demonstrated a gift for turning out boisterous, unpretentious tunes suited to the strengths and weaknesses of predetermined performers. They were chosen to come up with the specialty material for Little Me; some 30 years later, it’s still the funniest stuff in this less than first-rate show.

The strange thing about Little Me is that in toning down the source material for Broadway family audiences (while still trying to appeal to the “tired businessman” for whom shows were written in those days), Simon, Coleman, and Leigh ended up doing what Belle herself never could: they convince us of her essential innocence. The musical Belle is more Daisy Mae than Mae West; and the unalert viewer could easily miss the sexual undertones of Belle’s relationships with the male characters (played by a single actor).

That’s especially true in Candlelight Dinner Playhouse’s current revival. Director William Pullinsi–who has overseen the bright, bouncy, but rather bland production there–knows his audience; this Little Me has had its hemline lowered and its bodice raised even higher than on Broadway. It could almost be named You’re a Good Girl, Belle Poitrine.

This is not to fault the performances of Lori Hammel as the young Belle and Carla Oleck as the older; both women sing with the brassy verve the part calls for. (It was created for Virginia Martin, the sexy showgirl who played a corporate honcho’s mistress in the original How to Succeed and brought down the house by pairing a Marilyn Monroe attitude with an Ethel Merman voice.) And if Hammel and Oleck downplay Belle’s sexuality, it’s because they’ve been directed to do so. Larry Wyatt as Belle’s various suitors and spouses–including a Scrooge-like landlord, an oily French cabaret singer, a fresh-off-the-farm doughboy, and the preppie prig Noble Eggelston, for whom Belle carries the longest-burning torch since Scarlett O’Hara pined for Ashley Wilkes–employs comic precision effectively, though he lacks the basic star power that could make this role more than merely amusing. (He recalls Caesar’s second banana, little Howard Morris, more than Caesar himself.)

If the whole thing doesn’t really catch fire until the second act, it’s because that’s when Simon, Coleman, and Leigh trot out the surefire shtick that Caesar specialized in–the irresistibly silly foreign-accent routines, which Wyatt handles quite deftly. There’s the tyrannical German director Otto Schnitzler (who tries to direct Belle in a terrible religious epic called Moses Takes a Wife (“filmed in glorious Biblicolor”) and the impoverished European Prince Cherney, who takes leave of this life with the very funny mock-operetta production number that has always been the show’s highlight.

The big moviemaking and leavetaking numbers also utilize the greatest strengths of Candlelight’s elaborate yet always playfully cartoonlike production. Jack Kirkby’s costumes are not only boldly colorful, but also beautifully made, and set designer John Paoletti’s reliably whimsical sensibility is in fine form under Kenneth Moore’s lighting. Nick Venden’s musical direction, enhanced by David Pomatto’s sound design, is glossy and gleaming, and Pullinsi’s staging and Danny Herman’s choreography are buoyant and fun (though the Bob Fosse-style jazz tune “I’ve Got Your Number” is a bit overbusy; still, it’s well delivered by Bernie Yvon as small-town sleaze George Musgrove). Lacking the sexy sass of the original Broadway production and the satiric sting of its literary source, Candlelight’s Little Me is a splashy, craftily appealing diversion. Why, even Nancy Reagan might like it.