Pleasure cruise

By The Beautiful Sea

Book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields; music by Arthur Schwartz; lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Thomas Mills
Musicals Tonight!
Lambs Theatre
130 West 44th Street (362-5620)
Equity showcase (closes June 27)
Review by Doug DeVita

There is a select type of musical that fills a special niche: the star vehicle. Written and produced for the talents of a particular personality, it is meant to entertain, run as long as the performer can keep it open profitably, and then disappear to make room for the next star vehicle.

First produced in 1954, By the Beautiful Sea ran six months on the box-office appeal of comedienne Shirley Booth, slipping into a hazy oblivion after it closed. It's not hard to understand why. The book, expressly tailored to Booth's brassy personality by the brother and sister team Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was dated and silly nonsense even in 1954, and impossible to make palatable without a star of equally idiosyncratic magnitude. Taking place on Coney Island in 1907, the story clumps from one ridiculous cliché to another as Lottie Gibson, a brash vaudeville performer, attempts to snare herself a rather over-refined leading man, Shakespearean actor Dennis Emory.

Surrounded by a colorful grab-bag of all-singing, all-dancing supporting characters, including Emory's spiteful daughter Betsy, Lottie overcomes all hurdles with the ease and timing possible only in musical comedy. Luckily, the idiotic goings-on are interrupted with merciful regularity by a superior Arthur Schwartz score that, like our heroine, triumphs over the book with melodic, show-biz pizzazz.

Happily, Musicals Tonight!'s concert version of By the Beautiful Sea delivered the two things desperately needed to make the show work - a well-sung score and a star turn by a glamorous, magnetic personality. As Lottie, cabaret legend K.T. Sullivan bubbled, glowed, and effortlessly breathed sunny new life into the dreary old material. As she slinked across the stage with a healthy, pie-eyed sensuality, her lethal sense of comic timing made the hoary one-liners seem freshly minted and side-splittingly funny. Her fabulous voice stopped the show cold in her comic numbers, "I'd Rather Wake Up By Myself" and the superfluous but funny "Please Don't Send Me Down A Baby Brother."

Smartly directed by Thomas Mills, Sullivan was ably supported by a slyly effervescent production that capitalized on the evening's strong points: its score, its star, and its winning ensemble of top-notch talent. Under Michael Lavine's razzle-dazzle musical supervision, Schwartz's enchanting mix of waltzes, rags, barbershop quartets, ballads, and comedy turns exploded with gloriously old-fashioned energy and drive. As for individual performances, Sam Freed brought intelligence and warmth to Dennis Emory, while Marisa Bela made the bratty Betsy a charming, well-sung delight. Amy Jo Philips, exuberant as Lottie's housekeeper Ruby, nearly stole the show with her two numbers, and Patrick Boyd and Liam Burke stopped everything a fifth time with their breezy soft-shoe challenge dance. Perry Ojeda as a love-struck singing waiter, Kendall March as a perpetually tipsy neighbor, Louisa Flaningam as Emory's scheming ex-wife, and Andrew Gitzy as a carnival barker all contributed memorable turns, as did Randi Megibow, Brooke Moriber, and Lisa Trader as a trio of man-hungry sisters.

Staged and produced with obvious affection for the material, this revival of By the Beautiful Sea was a deft, entertaining glimpse at a curiosity from the golden age of the Broadway musical, and proves Musicals Tonight! worthy competition to the bigger, better-funded City Center Encores. Yay!

(Also featuring Stephen Carter Hicks, Kip Driver, Justin Edmund, and Ron Savin. Sets and Costumes uncredited; lighting by Lita Riddock.)

 Box Score:

Book: 0 Music: 2 Lyrics: 2
Directing: 2 / Musical Direction: 2

Acting: 2
Set: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita