Strike Up the Band
Bea Arthur--a musical-theater veteran dating back to the legendary off-Broadway Threepenny Opera of the mid-1950s--may be the nominal star of this concert version of George S. Kaufman and George and Ira Gershwin's 1927 musical. But her role as society matron Mrs. Draper is a distinctly secondary one even as beefed up by ever inventive director Marc Robin, who's reassigned "I've Got a Crush on You" to her. The real strength of this production--essentially a staged reading in which a 30-member cast in formal wear move with scripts in hand around and through an onstage 32-piece orchestra--is the superb ensemble Robin has fished from Chicago's talent pool. Catherine Lord, generally seen in supporting roles at suburban dinner theaters, gets a long overdue chance to shine as the female lead, dueting with Broadway tenor Jarrod Emick (star of Miss Saigon at the Auditorium a few years back) in the gorgeous ballad "The Man I Love," sung here with the Handelian stateliness the Gershwins intended. In this screwball satire of American jingoism, Lord plays the daughter of dairy mogul Horace Fletcher (Fred Zimmerman at his blustery best), who convinces the United States to go to war with Switzerland over tariffs on imported cheese; Emick plays the conscientious journalist who woos the daughter while exposing the father as a fraud. Fletcher's romance with Mrs. Draper provides the comedy's subplot. The supporting cast includes such local stalwarts as James Harms, Sam Samuelson, and Melissa Dye; John Frenzer (Younger Brother in Ragtime at the Oriental) is the Irish tenor who croons the exquisite serenade "Homeward Bound." The 20-member chorus boasts top local singers like Mary Ernster, David Girolmo, Cory Goodrich, and JoAnn Hawkins White (Queenie in the Auditorium's long-running Show Boat several seasons back). With vocalists like these the great score--which ranges from pop tunes like "Soon" to intricate Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style choral passages--will sound glorious, especially under the musical direction of passionate perfectionist Kevin Stites. Arthur's droll cameo and Chicago radio veteran Roy Leonard's witty narration are the icing atop this tasty, towering cake. A flop in its 1927 premiere--it closed in Philadelphia, never reaching Broadway--this is a musically rich, sardonically funny work that was years ahead of its time; it's a perfect opener for the Auditorium's "Ovations!" series, which features concert performances of neglected classics. Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, 312-902-1500. February 10 through 13: Thursday-Saturday, 8 PM; Sunday, 3 PM. $17-$77. Note: At Friday's show, a free child's ticket will be given with the purchase of an adult ticket for that evening, and the performance will be preceded at 6:30 PM by various family activities, including tap dancing demonstrations, a performance by clown Dr. Gesundheit, and a discussion with the show's director and musical director.