The 1949 musical comedy “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” based on the best-selling 1925 Anita Loos novel, is hardly ever performed nowadays. Carol Channing, who would later gain worldwide fame as Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!”, originally starred as the perennial dumb blonde Lorelei Lee of the Roaring Twenties.
Truth be told, the musical has been vastly overshadowed by its 1953 mega-successful film adaptation starring Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, which used a completely different script and very little of the original Jule Styne-Leo Robin score, merely the hit songs “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “A Little Girl From Little Rock” (renamed “Two Little Girls from Little Rock”) and “Bye, Bye Baby.”
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” premiered right smack in the middle of the Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution, when musical comedies were becoming increasingly integrated and character-focused. Although a 1995 Broadway revival quickly crashed and burned, if directed with the right mix of sincerity and silliness, it can still entertain, which is exactly what John Rando’s breezy concert production at City Center Encores! managed to accomplish.
After an Encores! season that began with the Stephen Sondheim gem “Merrily We Roll Along” followed by the Rodgers & Hammerstein flop “Pipe Dream,” it was a relief to just sit back and enjoy this jovial show, which is marked by Randy Skinner’s characteristically polished and showstopping choreography.
In a neat bit of casting, Megan Hilty, whose character on the television series “Smash” longs to play Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical based on her life, was cast as Lorelei Lee. But unlike Monroe, Hilty has a strong belting voice that can handle the show’s entire score. She played Lorelei like a giddy child who is aware of her busty sexual prowess but still believably innocent. Although she doesn’t land some of the one-liners, she was terrific in the role.
Rachel York was dynamic as Lorelei's pal Dorothy Shaw, a sexpot looking for a good time instead of a secure financial future. Anyone who saw "The Drowsy Chaperone" probably noted York’s uncanny resemblance to Beth Leavel, whose character also acted as a chaperone to a companion about to be married.
As always, the Encores! orchestra, under the baton of Rob Berman, sounded fabulous, capturing the lush sound of Don Walker’s orchestrations. While “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” might be just a bit too madcap and unintegrated to succeed as a full-scale Broadway revival, it made a perfectly enjoyable Encores! production that should not have been missed.
“Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” played New York City Center. 131 W. 55th St., citycenter.org.