If there’s been one trend in the last decade or so of musical theatre, it’s metatheatrical references. That’s where a show is very consciously a show. It can be seen in the self-referential “Song That Goes Like This” from Spamalot, the copious in-jokes and fourth-wall-breaking of Shrek and last year’s Best Musical Tony-winner, Something Rotten, and with the entire existence of [title of show].
Making your show meta is all very well if the material supports it. In Spamalot it works because Monty Python have always been winking at the audience through the screen, and Shrek, Something Rotten and [title of show]’s composers and lyricists, Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire, Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick and Jeff Bowen, respectively, are brazen upstarts. Trying to get all meta on a songbook show of Jerry Herman numbers is never going to work, because the material just won’t support it.
Dean Bryant’s book for the Production Company’s Jerry’s Girls attempts this metatheatricality but, without the support of the music and lyrics, ends up being a mess of seeming in-jokes (almost all cheap), and over-explaining. With lines like “I just don’t know that audiences will connect to [“Nelson” from A Day in Hollywood], because they don’t know who Nelson Eddy or Jeanette McDonald were, or that he was short”, it just feels like a celebrity narrator would’ve been a more subtle choice. And celebrity narration is almost never a more subtle choice.
Fortunately, the choices of the performers were, with few exceptions, infinitely better. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the fact that the cast comprised such old hands, if you’ll excuse the O-word, as Rhonda Burchmore, Nancye Hayes and Silvie Paladino, along with Christie Whelan Browne, Virginia Gay, Claire Lyon, Kirby Burgess, Chelsea Gibb, Debora Krizak, Josie Lane and Natalie O’Donnell.
There’s enough experience in that cast to sink a battleship, and one would’ve expected that, with a similar degree of experience, the design team could have risen to the same level. However, the conceit of the book (showing the rehearsal process for a Production Company show) left Dale Ferguson the unenviable and unachievable task of making this show look good inside a pine box, although the show curtain featuring what I can only assume is the limited-edition Eddie Izzard Barbie was, presumably, all him. Owen Phillips was given the similarly impossible task of making glamorous costumes that somehow also looked like rehearsal gear. Only Matt Scott’s lighting managed to avoid concept-related failure.
The performances, on the other hand, were largely unscathed, with the notable exception of anything happening on the deadly Mylar glitter left on stage between the Milk and Honey sequence and interval. Speaking of the Milk and Honey sequence, it was one of the highlights of the show, with a suitably understated and anthemic performance by Paladino. Other highlights included Burchmore and Gay’s performance of “Bosom Buddies” from Mame, Gay’s “Gooch’s Song” (also from Mame), Krizak’s turn in ‘Take It All Off’ from the obscure revue Parade, and the entire company closing the show with ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ from Mack and Mabel.
Jerry’s Girls is worth seeing for the performances alone, if you can manage to ignore the terrible book, and the problems that, of necessity, flow on from that.