The Boy Friend
nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
September 26, 2007
The Boy Friend is Sandy Wilson's sweet confection written in the 1950s as a kind of love letter to the Roaring Twenties. It is one of the few "British Imports" of its day: having had a successful run in London's West End it came to Broadway in 1954. Here, it starred an unknown talent making her American debut at the tender age of 19 who took the town by storm, Julie Andrews. In 1971, it was made into a charming movie starring Twiggy and Tommy Tune. With such enduring songs as "Won't You Charleston With Me?" and "I Could Be Happy With You," we are indebted to producer Mel Miller and his Musicals Tonight! company for bringing The Boy Friend back to the New York City spotlight in this first of their new season of staged readings.
Set in the south of France's côte d'azur near Nice, the action centers in and around Madame Dubonnet's Finishing School, where English teenage girls are sent to learn how to become "Perfect Young Ladies" (the opening musical number). The plot revolves around Polly (Kathryn Holtkamp) a popular student who has fictionalized a boyfriend to the extent of addressing love letters to herself. You see, all the real boys she has dated have not cared about her, but have only been interested in her considerable inheritance. However, the big dance is coming up and her fictional boyfriend is now expected as her escort. Fortunately a local delivery boy, a young Englishman named Tony (Jeremy Michael), arrives at the school with a package. Predictably but charmingly, sparks are ignited ("I Could Be Happy With You").
Then, Polly's widower father Lord Percy (Dan Debenport) arrives for a visit. He and the unmarried headmistress Dubonnet (Ester David) recognize each other from a post-Armistice tryst they had had in Paris at the end of the Great War. This very French woman has trouble breaking through his Anglo façade ("Fancy Forgetting," "You Don't Want To Play With Me Blues"), but inevitably she unthaws his libido. Meantime, the big plot hiccup is a mistaken belief by Polly midway through the play that Tony only likes her for her money. So, she shuns the big dance until Mme. Dubonnet coaxes her out ("Poor Little Pierrette"). In the end Love triumphs and we learn the true connection between Tony and a pair of upper crust Brits who have been lurking about—Tony himself is a man of wealth who has come to Nice to get away. Along the way there is the requisite subplot between one of the girls, Maisie (Marnie Buckner), and a young American, Bobby (Stephan Stubbins), who clearly are in love but whose expected engagement is waylaid by Maisie, who feels the need to play hard to get—despite the fact that they dance divinely together.
Director and choreographer Thomas Sabella-Mills does a good job of giving us a feeling for the musical, which is really what ought to be expected from a staged reading. I overheard an audience member wonder why the actors were carrying "those black things." He must not have known that Musicals Tonight! produces readings, not full productions, and thus the actors carry their scripts and are not required to memorize their parts. Sabella-Mills embraces the script-carrying restriction—the prompt books are used sometimes as props (like a convenient screen to hide an illicit kiss) and sometimes as costume pieces (a clever way to carry the masks in a masked ball). During choreography, he is able to let the books go, bringing us some cute versions of '20s dancing, executed with a jubilant panache.
This cast is uneven, with both French and English accents running a gamut from hokey to excellent. But the enthusiasm by all is infectious and there are several standouts. Holtkamp and Michael are charming as the ingénue couple and they sell their duets well, making "I Could Be Happy With You" a particular crowd pleaser. Buckner and Stubbins make fun second bananas and they sing and dance the heck out of "Won't You Charleston With Me?" Buckner in fact has an innate charisma that could really take her places. David and Debenport are effective as the older lovers, though David perhaps succeeds more completely. Her characterization is well done, her accent is terrific and her singing is very, very good.
Of the design elements, only the lighting by Yingzhi Zhang is credited and Zhang's work serves the show well. The costumes effectively suggest the period and the set, though sparse, defines the locales. David Bishop, who plays the piano from behind a center flat, does a good job with his musical direction; though for my taste I would have generally increased the tempi, especially in the Charleston number. But that's a quibble with which he may well agree—conducting from the piano behind a flat in back of the actors is a near-impossible task.
This is not deep theatre, but light entertainment on the order of some of our current and more popular Broadway shows. The Boy Friend at Musicals Tonight! is a fun evening and a nice visit to a charming musical. It lacks the polish of a full production, but that should be expected in a staged reading.