Lichtenberg: a treat from Berlin

BRAVO, bravo to everyone involved in this spectacular production.

Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam is emphatically not the “serious drama” one of the characters (tongue, admittedly, in cheek) introduces it as at the off. Rather, it is a brassy, exuberant romp with a large, energetic cast who give it their all. In other words, this show makes no apologies for being no more or less than rollicking family entertainment.

The description of Upstairs at the Gatehouse as “fringe” seems unfair; the singing and dancing here is as good as in the West End and all the better for taking place in such an intimate space. Also, it is great to be able to actually see the jazz ensemble responsible for delivering such a confident performance of Berlin’s knee-slapping, toe-tapping numbers – something you can’t say of West End theatres, where the orchestras are hidden.

The story – never more than a structural necessity in a play like this – is set in the quaint, fictional European country of Lichtenburg. Sally “Call Me Madam” Adams (played with effortless competence by Beverley Klein) is the American ambassador to this puny, chocolate box duchy with its silly costumes and famous cheese. In between trying to get Lichtenburg’s government to accept an American loan,this good time gal throws parties and falls in love with Lichtenburg’s foreign minister, Cosmo Constantine (Gido Schimanski), who quickly becomes president (due, through no fault of his own, to some dodgy backroom deals). By way of subplots, there is another love story. Kenneth Gibson (Chris Love), press attaché at the US embassy, is enamoured with Lichtenburg royalty. Fair Princess Maria (Kate Nelson) visits him in secret, fearful of her parents’ wrath.
The gags are essentially all born out of conflicts between American and Lichtenburgian culture, particularly the culture surrounding money. The American showy, profligate nature is lost in translation in Lichtenburg; Lichtenburgers – or at least those of them in government – are reluctant to accept US aid, focused as they are on “higher things”. Sally Adams, meanwhile, informs us that “an ounce of wisdom and a pound of gold” is all you need in the US “if you’re feeling presidential”

What really matters, however, are the songs and the dancing, which, as already stated, are marvelous. This show is a hoot – colourful escapism, pure and simple. All but the most determined misery-guts will leave the auditorium smiling.

Shirley Temple variously became US ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, so the story of Call Me Madam - in which a moneyed society hostess and personal friend of president Harry Truman is appointed to the same role for the mythical country of Lichtenburg - isn’t so very far-fetched. Nor, sadly, is its portrait of an America hellbent on supposedly philanthropic, but entirely mercenary, interventionist policies in independent overseas nations, propping up an autocratic regime in the guise of enforcing democratic elections there.

There’s a hilarious sting in one American official’s comment, “The trouble with these European governments is that they’re all run by foreigners”, but while such moments give this rare revival of Irving Berlin’s 1950 musical a surprisingly contemporary edge, Thom Southerland’s production doesn’t labour or comment on them but allows the piece to speak and sing (often gorgeously) for itself. Yes, it may seem formulaic and dated, but it is full of texture and surprises that emerge by the simple expedient of honouring its period charms so precisely. Not seen in London since a short-lived 1983 revival at the Victoria Palace Theatre, it contains more political satire by being played straight than by being played up. And Southerland’s production is expertly rendered by a game cast, propelled by a big, ballsy and brassy performance by Beverley Klein as Sally Adams, the eponymous “hostess with the mostes’”.

Although her comparative maturity against the youthful cast around her threatens to unbalance things, the proceedings are staged with such vivacity and buoyancy, especially thanks to Drew McOnie’s period-perfect choreography, that it wins on every front. A terrific five-strong band give it oomph and melody, and there are terrific supporting performances from Gido Schimanski as the Lichtenburg politician Sally falls in love with, while a parallel affair is attractively pursued by Chris Love’s Kenneth Gibson and Kate Nelson as Lichtenburg’s Princess Maria.

Mark Shenton

Call me old fashioned, but Call Me Madam is my kind of musical. True, 60 years after Ethel Merman triumphed on Broadway as Sally ("hostess with the mostes’ on the ball"’) Adams, Irving Berlin’s list of hit songs is now the only remaining star of a show that can never escape from a 1950s President Harry S Truman-era timewarp. With a parade of golden oldies including "It’s a Lovely Day Today", "The Best Thing for You (Would Be Me)" and that classic counterpoint number, "You’re Just in Love", here’s another Berlin musical, like Annie get Your Gun, where you can’t stop humming the tunes before you’ve even bought your ticket. But hearing them over again in Thom Southerland’s enjoyable revival, I couldn’t help thinking that half the fun for fifties Broadway audiences must have come from watching Merman, the Queen of Musical Comedy, holler each Berlin showstopper across the footlights with her unmistakably exuberant bugle-like vocal delivery. Fortunately, for seekers after rarely seen musicals, Southerland plays down the hard-to-get topical references, which is just as well when gags about Princess Margaret and Danny Kaye are pretty meaningless today and phone calls to "Harry" at the White House just don’t carry the same comic clout they must have had at the time. Even so, backed by a live on-stage band, this production is rather like an old vinyl LP, lovingly if not digitally restored in a version that may not be high enough on budget to remove all the scratches, but hits all the right high notes with clarion clarity wherever it counts, mainly because Beverly Klein as Sally Adams is Ethel Merman all over again.

Last seen as the Old Lady in the ENO’s Candide and as a superb Golde in Lyndsay Posner’s fine Fiddler on the Roof revival at the Savoy Theatre, the buxom and now booming Klein dominates the tiny Gatehouse space wearing a selection of stunning Dior-style gowns and punching across those loud Merman-friendly songs with a hard-boiled edge on the outside and a soft centre within whenever it’s required. There’s some nice lovey-dovey singing from Chris Love and Kate Nelson as the secondary romantic interest, and choreographer Drew McOne ensures that a chorus of lithe young singer-dancers work their 1950s socks off at White House parties and Lichtenburgian festivities.

Having cracked open the musical joys of Call Me Madam for a new audience, apparently with the blessing of the Berlin family, and after successfully turning his hand to revivals of hardly ever seen shows like The Unsinkable Molly Brown, I’ll look forward to Southerland’s next excavation into the Broadway of yesteryear when he revives the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair at the even tinier Finborough next month. Meanwhile, enjoy Klein as the new hostess with the mostes’ having a ball, if not on Broadway any more, at least in Highgate Village.

Roger Foss

Berlin’s escape from real life politics makes a lively night tonight.

Irving Berlin's lightweight, post-war political satire Call Me Madam pitches Mrs. Sally Adams, socialite and friend of the President, into the European and completely fictional Duchy of Lichtenburg (apparently inspired by the non-fictional Duchy of Luxembourg) as Ambassafor.

'Hostess with the Mostess' Adams, smitten by Foreign Secretary Cosmo Constantine, launches her own policy of cheque book diplomacy to assist the tiny cheese-producing nation and help launch Cosmo’s reluctant political elevation to Prime Minister. Emulating the US’s mainly pre-war Dollar Diplomacy policies Call Me Madam also introduces the quaint but novel notion of an honourable leader, eager to build his county without recourse to excessive national debt. There are plots, counterplots, mistaken motives, Machiavellian intrigues, princesses (well, one), lots of romance, millions of dollars and not one single Dutch man. And this is a musical.

Thom Southerland grapples well with the political burden and light humour but it still takes a while for Call Me Madam to take off and without some fine casting, supplementing Beverly Klein’s charm and wiles, it could easily have been a turgid affair. That is until the arrival of Princess Maria, in the form of the ever captivating Kate Nelson; her entrance for 'The Octarina' is quite over the top, with Drew McOnie’s marvellous tongue-in-cheek national dancing and some wonderfully ‘Allo ‘Allo Euro-accents. I have long extolled the musical delights of Kate Nelson; she is as enchanting as ever and imbues Princess Maria and Call Me Madam with humour, beauty and those smiling eyes.

The musical lacks an abundance of memorable numbers, making do with 'It’s A Lovely Day Today', but the cast and creative team have crafted an entertaining production which, after a slow start, bursts forth into a wonderfully bubbly, funny and light-hearted evening of international politics, intrigue and romance.

Review: Geoff Ambler
It's good to see “Call Me Madam” back on the boards. Director Thom Southerland has been re-staging classic American musicals such as “Annie Get Your Gun”, “The Pajama Game”, “Oklahoma!”, and “Mack and Mabel”. He recently secured the rights for the UK premiere of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and has Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “State Fair” coming to the Finborough Theatre. Using small venues, he makes the best of the limited spaces, filling them with quite intricate routines. Upstairs at The Gatehouse in Highgate has more room than most pub venues for Southerland to manoeuvre his chorus. The band is placed at the back on a raised platform to leave the playing area for the action and energetic dancing. It’s a very hard-working company, its members rarely off the stage.

Berlin wrote his show for a star. In the 1950s there was none bigger than Ethel Merman. In Beverley Klein this production has the current best. As Mrs Lovett in “Sweeney Todd”, Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof”, The Witch in “Into the Woods” and The Old Lady in “Candide”, Klein has proved that she is one of the UK’s best leading ladies in musical comedy. Here she really gets into the personality of Sally Adams and certainly as much as Merman ever did. She can be funny and sweet and serious too and lights up the stage. I look forward to her Dolly Levi and her Auntie Mame, which she surely must do. Her highlight in “Call Me Madam” is ‘You’re Just in Love’ in which Berlin presents two tunes in counterpoint, sung by Sally and Kenneth as they bemoan their romantic fates.

The company is well-drilled for Drew McOnie’s spirited choreography brought off with pizzazz. Gido Schimanski is requisitely restrained and gentlemanly as Cosmo, Chris Love and Kate Nelson make a winsome couple of young lovers and Matthew Trevannion is suitably sour as the manipulating major-domo Pemberton Maxwell. Great show, great cast, and another success for Thom Southerland.

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

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