As part of the Encores! series at City Center, I saw Call Me Madam, a revival of the 1950 musical that starred the incomparable Ethel Merman.
I saw the original and, even as a young teen, recognized Merman’s talent, especially her ability to belt out a song and completely dominate the stage. This is a link to her –with Donald O’Connor in the 1953 movie– singing the counterpoint hit, You’re Just in Love https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LAijDQ2cIE
In the original stage production the young attaché’s part was played by Russell Nype. The show’s music and lyrics were by Irving Berlin; George Abbott directed.
Madam was built around the doings of Pearle Mesta, Washington DC socialite, party-giver and Democratic fundraiser, who had been appointed as Ambassador to Lichtenstein. When the idea was first broached to Merman (who had no interest in politics) she reportedly said “who the hell is Pearle Mesta?”
This Encores! version has terrific choreography, great costumes that neatly summoned the 50s with ball gowns and fluffy skirts and, of course, that wonderful score with numbers like The Best Thing for you Would be Me, It’s a Lovely Day Today and even They Like Ike performed with panache by Adam Heller, Stanley Wayne Mathis and Brad Oscar, as two Representatives and a Congressman. There’s also a number set at the faux Mittle European “Lichtenstein” town fair complete with guys in lederhosen, girls in pseudo dirndls and ocarina music that’s a hoot. What the production lacks is Merman or a performer of her ilk like Tyne Dailey who handled the role in another revival. In this version, the lead is Carmen Cusack who looks great but can’t come close to matching Merman’s chops. The performance was fun but Merman’s oversize personality and great song styling gave the original a lot of pizzazz that’s missing.
Ah the 50s, when no one was gluten-free, girls wore poodle skirts and spinning was something kids did to make themselves dizzy. (Of course there was also the Civil Rights movement, Cold War and a lot else.) Before nostalgia overtakes, here’s a recipe for something I actually served for h’ors d’oeuvres way back when:
1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, softened
1 Tbls. lemon juice
1 Tbls. horseradish (from a jar)
1 /4 tsp salt
Dash of liquid smoke (It came in a bottle and was likely a carcinogen. As a friend once said, “a bottle of this will last a marriage. Mine did. )
1 can of pink salmon
Mix it all together, trying not to wince, and shape into a ball. I vaguely recall rolling it in chopped nuts. Serve with Ritz crackers and a lot of alcohol (Did we drink wine then? I recall Scotch.) In fairness, the salmon ball tasted pretty good but what did I know?