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Fade Out-Fade In

nytheatre.com review by Charles C Bales
October 16, 2012

For its 72nd revival since 1997, the Obie Award-winning company Musicals Tonight! has dusted the cobwebs off the little-known Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Jule Styne Hollywood satire Fade In Fade Out to add to its repertoire of musical theater curiosities.

Originally titled A Girl to Remember and directed by the then 75-year-old George Abbott, the 1964 production of the show is legendary because of its trouble-plagued run and backstage drama that included a 13-week shutdown due to a contractual dispute with its up-and-coming star, Carol Burnett, fresh off her success in Once Upon This Mattress.

Burnett contended that an injury kept her from performing in the physically demanding comedy, although producers noted she seemed to have enough energy to tape her brand-new TV show, The Entertainers. Amid litigation, Actors’ Equity stepped in and required her to fulfill her legal obligations to Fade In Fade Out, which never regained its initial box office momentum and ended up being a financial flop.

Basically the story of a 1930s New York movie palace usherette who catapults to stardom by accident, Fade Out Fade In is a decidedly lesser effort from the authors of the classic Bells Are Ringing  — and the screenwriters of the even more classic Singin’ in the Rain. Even musical aficionados will be hard-pressed to name a single song from the show, since not one of its mostly serviceable tunes became part of the musical theater canon.

This Musicals Tonight! production, running till the end of October at the Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, is, as usual, done in the concert style of City Center’s Encore! series with the cast carrying binders onstage that include their scripts and sheet music. A simple piano accompaniment stands in for a full orchestra.

Staged minimally with only placards and a few props indicating the change of setting, director/choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills keeps the action of the nearly two-and-a-half hour show at a brisk pace, which helps overcome the libretto’s many weaknesses, dated jokes, and cliché plot.

Not so subtly lampooning Hollywood during the changeover from silent films to talkies, characters such as the skirt-chasing nepot L.Z. Governor stand in for the similarly-natured MGM head L.B. Meyer and gossip columnist Dora Dailey for the notorious Hedda Hopper.

But the star of the show is without a doubt the awkward, movie-loving Hope Springfield, chosen in error by L.Z.’s subservient studio head nephew to star in the newest picture from FFF Studios.

Admittedly, Vanessa Lemonides is no Carol Burnett, although she tries hard in the role of Hope. Her singing is mostly up to snuff, if not exactly robust, but her clowning is more flat than frantic. Physical comedy is hard to pull off, and the graceful Ms. Lemonides simply isn’t believable playing slapstick. She’s too mannered to be manic, as evident in the not-as-zany-as-it-should-be first act closer, “Lily Tremaine” (the new stage name given to the stage-struck Springfield).

Lemonides shines brightest in the second act charmer “You Mustn’t Be Discouraged,” where she delightfully mimics the performance style of child star Shirley Temple, tap dancing alongside an actor obviously fashioned after Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

There are lots of other wonderful voices and talented performers in Fade Out Fade In, which boasts an impressive cast of 21. Jeffrey Arnold Wolf as L.Z. and Joan Barber as Dora attack their parts with an over-the-top relish that befits the heavy-handed satire. Rob Lorey as Rudolph, L.Z.’s honest-to-a-fault nephew (and Hope’s love interest), has a clarion of a voice that rings out like a bell.

As Gloria, the talentless usherette who was supposed to be groomed as the new Hollywood starlet, Oakley Boycott hilariously channels Lesley Ann Warren’s blond bimbo shtick from Victor Victoria in the role originally played by Tina Louise (who left the production during its hiatus to become Ginger on Gilligan’s Island).

It’s golden tenor Bill Coyne, however, who steals the show as Byron Prong, the vainglorious Hollywood hunk and Hope’s co-star in the ridiculous titled Fiddler and the Fighter. His solo turn, “My Fortune Is My Face,” mostly sung into his ever-present hand mirror, is the highlight of the evening and by far the show’s best song. “Fear,” sung by the bumbling nephews, comes in a close second, with its lovely barbershop harmonies and funny lyrics.

But these nuggets are not really enough to save this old show — and this new production — from a case of been-there/done-that doldrums, ultimately fizzling out with mostly forgettable songs and a disappointedly inert ending. Compared to the musicals Hello, Dolly! and Funny Girl that were popular at the same time, Fade Out Fade In deservedly faded into obscurity. But as a curiosity for musical theater lovers, Musicals Tonight! puts on a mostly entertaining if not spectacular show of yet another one of Broadway’s oft-neglected oddities.