OK, so maybe they haven't decided who's getting the Marilyn Monroe role in the fictional musical on TV's "Smash." But Megan Hilty, who, as fans know, plays one of two actresses vying for that role, is so fresh, brassy, sexy and funny in the new Encores! production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" that you just want to shout: "Give her the part already! ANY part!"
Sometimes the casting of TV stars in stage productions feels like a gimmick, but not here. Hilty is a stage actress first—she played Glinda in "Wicked" and also starred in "9 to 5." But she does something truly special with the iconic role of Lorelei Lee, the not-really-dumb blonde first immortalized onstage by Carol Channing, and later on film by Monroe herself.
Yes, Hilty has some famous shoes to fill. But she's not about to mimic either actress. She's confident enough to add new layers to the role. This Lorelei is a fascinating combination of strength, verve, humor, energy, sexual allure, and a bunch of other things hard to put one's finger on. It helps that her singing voice is a marvelous instrument, too.
Just watch Hilty belt out "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," Lorelei's famously pragmatic defense of her gold-digging ways. Hilty is clad in shimmering sequins, accentuating all the right curves. She glitters, swaggers, bumps and growls her way through Leo Robin's clever lyrics. She should be getting a commission from Tiffany and Cartier, so convincingly does she hail their virtues.
When she was done, on opening night Wednesday, she re-entered the stage to perform the next scene, and was applauded again for long seconds before she could speak. This is what they call a show-stopper.
We'd be remiss, though, to speak only of Hilty, because this production, sadly playing for only seven performances at New York City Center, shimmers all over, from the ebullient cast of 30-plus to the onstage orchestra of the same size, expertly led by Rob Berman.
Director John Rando keeps the silly goings-on (and they ARE silly) moving at a happily brisk pace, and the choreography by Randy Skinner is a delight, from the athletic exertions of bare-chested Olympic team members to the crowd-pleasing tap number featuring the terrific team of Phillip Attmore and Jared Grimes, and Megan Sikora.
"Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," with its famous score by Jule Styne, is based on the novel by Anita Loos. Set in the Roaring Twenties, it follows Lorelei as she sails to Paris with her best friend and fellow showgirl, Dorothy (a charming Rachel York here, in terrific voice).
Like that other ocean-liner show currently playing, "Anything Goes," the Atlantic crossing provides endless opportunity for musical comedy mayhem. The easiest part of the convoluted plot to explain is the revelation that Lorelei doesn't have quite the quiet past that her fiance, a button magnate, thought—she's from Arkansas, not Virginia, and got into a spot of trouble with the law there. Will the button magnate stay true? Or will Lorelei end up with the raw-carrot eating zipper inventor?
None of it matters much—it's Styne's lovely score, with songs like "Bye, Bye, Baby," "A Little Girl from Little Rock" and of course "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," the lush musical arrangements, and especially the entertaining performances all around that stick with you. (Among the supporting players, kudos must be given to Brennan Brown for channeling Peter Sellers—or is it Steve Martin?—in one hysterical scene.)
This is the third and last Encores! production of the season, and the most successful—look around the audience and it's hard to find anyone without a grin on their face. It's also the most elaborately staged. Time was, an Encores! production felt spare. Not this one.
Most of all, credit for the evening's sparkle goes to Hilty for her bombshell performance. "Bombshell," as "Smash" fans know, is the name of the musical in which Hilty and Katharine McPhee play rivals for that lead role.
However that contest turns out, what about "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes?" on Broadway? "Bombshell" is still fictional. "Gentlemen" is real, and ready. Producers, are you listening?