© November 2001
What a night, what a show, and what a glorious celebration of Cole Porter’s work. Du Barry Was A Lady was originally conceived by Buddy G DeSylva and Herbert Fields with the intention of casting Mae West in the title role, and the possibility of DeSylva himself writing the lyrics, somewhere along the line they wound up with Ethel Merman in the title role and songs by Cole Porter. Given that the show actually starred La Merman, the problem is finding an actress who can actually “Sing the song as it was intended”. The solution, in this production, is Louise Gold.
The show was originally produced at Broadway’s 46th Street Theatre in December 1939. There was an original London production starring Frances Day, (according to Ian Marshall-Fisher) by complete coincidence, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, which ran for 6 months. The theatre was not the only thing to have had a previous association with this show, two of the performers, Lost Musicals stalwarts Louise Gold and James Vaughan, appeared in an earlier Lost Musicals production at Barbican Cinema 1, playing the same respective roles, with musical director Mark Warman on the piano. The male lead was originally played on Broadway by Bert Lahr, the original London production featured Arthur Riscoe, and the earlier Lost Musicals production Barry Cryer, unfortunately illness prevented him from accepting the role this time, so Desmond Barrit took his place.
The show opens in a Nightclub, The Club Petit, in New York in 1939. A reporter, Mark Siney, and other people in the club are waiting for Louis Blore, who works there and has just won $75,000 in a sweepstake, Where’s Louie? That song, in typical Cole Porter fashion, gets the show off to a rousing start. Next we meet two dancers, Alice and Harry, who recollect Louis once said if he had $1,000.00 he would give it to them to dress up their act, then they could get married, We’ll Make Every Day A Holiday. This number was originally sung and danced by Betty Grable (who got into at least one Cole Porter lyric herself, in I Hate Men) and Charles Walters (the MGM Choreographer and Director). It was first introduced at Her Majesty’s Theatre by Frances Marsden and Teddy Beaumont, and sung in the earlier Lost Musicals production by Mark Fredrick and Danielle Carson. In this production (Lost Musicals newcomer) Lauren Ward and Gavin Lee did the roles justice respectively, and danced especially well. Louis Blore finally turns up; the reporter tries to interview him, asking what job he does at the club, he has just quit and is reluctant to say, he was The Men’s Room Attendant. Vi Hennassey tries to ask him out, now that he is so rich, but he has his sights set on May Daly, after all “it doesn’t matter where you start in this world, its where you finish.” Vi says “And you started...” he interrupts telling her to never mind that, he knows where he is going and how he will get there. It Ain’t Etiquette. Both actors sung the role well, and acted it out nicely. Vi Hennassey, originally played on Broadway by Jean Moorhead, in earlier Her Majesty’s production by Inga Andersen, and previously inhabited in The Lost Musicals by that most regular of regular cast members, Myra Sands, is played in this production by Gabriella Santinelli.
Louis has arranged with the Kelly the club manager, very well played by Chris Vincent, for a big reception for May, with flowers thrown all over her. He is temporarily absent when she comes in a little sooner than he expected. The band herald her entrance as Louise Gold, who had been sitting at the back in the centre, rose to her feet and strode majestically into the scene. Most of the women were wearing black or in some cases silver but fairly plain evening dresses. Lauren Ward wears one of distinctive white. Louise Gold is in a magnificent mainly black ball gown type dress, with quite a full skirt, and bright red underskirt, which we usually can’t see, because the hem of her dress reaches almost to the ground, it is topped with a colourful maroon jacket. She is wearing silvery earrings, and some kind of necklace, which for the purposes of this show, at least, is supposed to be a watch chain. She has just been to see that Du Barry picture, and liked it, did Du Barry know what to do with love and money. Vi says “There are lots of things in the world better than money” “Yeah but it takes money to by them” replies May, and launches into When Love Beckoned. Louise Gold sang the song beautifully, with sincerity, her strong but sweet voice giving the song wonderful depth.
Louise Gold soon proves that when it comes to delivering the huge number of wisecracks in the script, her comic timing is absolutely second to none. May was not amused by the reception, or, when he turns up, by Louis’s affections towards her. When he says that he reads Esquire (a weighty magazine) with one hand, her expert eye examines his arm muscles with disbelief! (Ms Gold, after all, knows a bit about such things, she is an experienced puppeteer). Alice tells May that her brother, Alex Barton a newspaper reporter is in town, and is coming to see her (May) tonight. From one Lost Musicals stalwart reprising their role to another, enter James Vaughan, as Charley a role originally played on Broadway by Benny Baker, and played in the previous Her Majesty’s production by Jackie Hunter. When asked where he is from Charley replies “Reform school”, Louis is asked to show him the ropes.
It is not long before Alex Barton, a sturdy performance from Mark McKerracher, in a role originally played on Broadway by Ronald Graham, previously played at Her Majesty’s by Bruce Trent, and played in the previous Lost Musicals production by Clive Walton, appears on the scene. May is smitten with Alex and he with her. He suggests that she marry him, and she enquires “Why don’t you ask me”. He already did “And passed out cold”. He tells May to consider herself engaged , she tells him “The first thing you do is get a divorce”. Alex reckons it will be easy to get his wife Ann to divorce him (he has hardly seen her for years), May isn’t so sure. Louis is appalled by Alex’s advances on his girl, and his heir apparent, Charley, suggests Alex is a candidate for a Mickey Finn. Charley always carries things like that around. Now we come one of the high spots of the evening, it is time for the club’s big dinner show, Come On In (And See The Show Tonight). The number starts quietly with a few of the girls dancing, but soon gains in tempo with the entrance of our star herself. Suddenly we know exactly why Louise Gold has been cast in this role. Yes she’s a fine actress, but there are other people who act well; Yes she can deliver wise-cracks with near perfect comic timing, but there are a few other performers whose timing is reasonable. However, no one can sing this sort number the way the glorious Louise Gold can. Loud, magnificently confident, and sounding like a brass band going by (as Cole Porter once said of La Merman), this is our leading lady. The chorus were good, but it is she who leads them. It is one of those moments in a show where the leading lady suddenly flashes into action, with a terrific belt number, and displays her vocal prowess and sheer command of the stage; other examples include: Ridn’ High in the 1936 musical Red Hot & Blue (which Louise Gold did wonderfully at The Barbican in 1994), and, the title song in the 1999 musical Mamma Mia (brilliantly inhabited many a night in the West End by Louise Plowright).
A showstopper is hard to follow, it makes sense to follow with something completely different, in this case a comedy scene, as Louis instructs Charley in the art of attending the men’s room, Charley finds it rather hard to get the hang of his new career. The scene was, however, a great opportunity for Desmond Barrit, James Vaughan, and a customer played by Jeremy David, to exercise their undoubted mime and visual comedy skills. Somewhere along the line Louis tells Charley he should brush up on his history, by seeing more moving picture shows. Charley says he finds history confusing, everybody in it is either Norma Shearer or Betty Davis. Louis comments that he saw a picture the other day without Don Ameche (a reminder perhaps that Ethel Merman had recently appeared in Alexander’s Ragtime Band with Don Ameche). Presently Alex drops in, under the pretext of no hard feelings over Alex’s engagement to May, Louis suggest they have a drink, in the bathroom. Charley tunefully reminds Louis what to do with a refrain “Dum, Dum Dum, Mickey Finn”. James Vaughan happens to be rather good at subtle bits of singing like this. Louis and Alex have a whisky, and Louis drops the Mickey Finn in, unfortunately he gets hurried, muddles the drinks up, drinks the spiked drink himself, and promptly falls asleep, Dream Song, where the male chorus ask us who knows what he might have been. He dreams he is Louis XV of France, Mesdames et Messieurs sing the female chorus.
We are in the gardens of The Petit Trianon at Versaille, where Vi Henassey, now metamorphosed into La Duchess, has a few cutting comments to make about “that Street Walker from Paris” in other words, Countess Du Barry. Du Barry herself, May of course, enters. On the matter of a song that has been written about her and The King, her response, spoken with convincing feeling, is “I don’t care what they say about me, so long as they spell my name right”. She comments this is the third Chateau the King has had built for her, but their relationship has not yet been consummated. She also remarks he has “Hired an animal cracker from England to teach me how to behave in every room in the Palace, except The Boudoir, I’ve always been alright in there” The comment was a perfect one to be spoken by earthy comedienne Ethel Merman, and it is perfect for Louise Gold, with her strong sense of how to play a likeable, naturally somewhat unrefined character who finds herself moving up the social ladder, but never loses her simple down to earthness. It is noticeable that as Du Barry she frequently drops into a rather nice American Western twang.
The King arrives with The Dauphin. The latter, despite being a married man is evidently still something of a schoolboy in behaviour, liking to play with toys and take things apart. James Vaughan played this complicated character extremely well. Meanwhile, The King is appalled by that song, and orders the arrest of the songwriter. The guards, lead by Harry, now metamorphosed into the Captain of The Guard, go off to do so., while La Duchess shows off a trio of actresses to the King. After this he greets “Jenny” one of his pet names for Du Barry (Herbert Fields seems to have had a things about that name, he tried to use it for the character of Blossom in Something For The Boys), and asks her about consummating their relationship. But she rebuffs him, I liked the way she almost yelled his name “Louie”, it is rather distinctive. They duet But In The Morning No. This is a witty Cole Porter list song, the two singers sang it delightfully, Desmond Barrit managed to hold his own reasonably well, bearing in mind that it is difficult for a singer to actually compete with Louise Gold when dueting with her. The number itself is a lovely one. The swimming references, Desmond had to sing were delightful, giving him the opportunity for a bit of acting out. That born satirist, Louise, was landed with the financial market lyrics, whose references modern audiences are probably far more familiar with than audiences would have been when the song was written. At the number’s conclusion the two singers strode up to the back of the stage and stood with their backs to the audience, they could not sit down, because other chorus members were busy moving their chairs to the centre of the stage, for use later.
The Guards catch the songwriter, it is of course Alex, they have to bring him before someone in authority, and thus he is brought before Du Barry herself, naturally May. When The Guards enter with The Prisoner, Du Barry shows her strong but likable personality. “Excuse me, I’ll handle this” says Du Barry, The Guards leave Alex alone with her. She releases him, so she can have the fun of catching him again, because she knows why he wrote the song, he is in love with her, Do I Love You? Both Mark McKerracher and Louise Gold sang the number well, although naturally it was Louise Gold’s strong sweet voice that dominated, somewhat. Mark McKerracher is a good singer, but Louise is something all of her own. She sends him off to her left, then summons The Guards, and says he escaped, in the other direction. After which she displays her considerable vocal talent and versatility, by reprising a wonderfully jazzy version of Do I Love You? This gave Louise some splendid opportunities for playing with accents.
Alex, meanwhile, finds himself in the Chateau, and confronted with his sister Alisande De Vernay, this is of course Alice, Du Barry’s lady in waiting, she suggests he hide in Du Barry’s bed. Presently, The Dauphin (Louis XVI), who else would be the heir apparent but Charley, lead by Kelly, passes through to a neighbouring room, intent on looking at a certain rare music box, which he told not to try and take apart, although of course he does. Apparently Louis XVI had a passion for taking things apart. Though Alisande does her best to throw everyone else off scent, she can’t stop Du Barry from coming into her own bedchamber. She finds Alex in her bed, and does not mind in the least. Their reverie is interrupted by someone coming, it is The King. Du Barry gets Alex to hide under the bedclothes, and she herself gets on the bed to hide him. We have to use our imagination here. The bed is represented by a couple of chairs. Mark McKerracher sits on one of them, and when Du Barry gets into bed to hide him, we had the somewhat bizarre spectacle of a 5ft9” tall actress sitting on his patella! At the second performance there was one moment during this scene where Louise’s face betrayed a look of discomfort (had she just been poked in the backside by mistake?). Unfortunately The King wants to get into bed too, so with a little burst of “Get out and Get Under” Du Barry tells Alex to hide under the bed, Louise Gold is also rather good at these subtle little bits of singing. And now we find Du Barry and The King chasing each other round the bedroom, and on top of the bed (both actors, first Louise, and later Desmond, at one time or another had to walk over the chairs), with Du Barry trying to stop The King from finding Alex. Unfortunately he does. The Guards are called in to carte him off. If that was not enough, The Dauphin and Kelly then pass through returning from the sitting room, with Daufy remarking “They don’t make music boxes like they used to”. The King jumps to the wrong conclusion, that The Dauphin is also after Du Barry; but he is not, and the actor playing him actually managed to act the part without suggesting anything to the contrary.
Act One is concluded in a salon at Petit Trianon, the prisoner, Alex, is brought before the King, asked if he has anything to say, he appeals to Du Barry, with a reprise of Do I Love You? The King demands (in song) to hear “that shameful ballad he wrote”. Du Barry responds “You can’t force the prisoner to testify against himself”, so The King sings it, Du Barry Was A Lady. Du Barry complains “You didn’t read it right, your Majesty always was lousy about punctuation”. She offers to “Sing the song as it was intended” and quite literally does do, Du Barry Was A Lady. The King is appeased, and offers to make Alex Poet Laureate of France, but Alex says that while Du Barry is very kind, The King sang it right, but with that he has to flee for his life, as the chorus conclude with a reprise of Du Barry Was A Lady, while Du Barry herself faints. Normally when Louise Gold has had to throw herself on the floor, she has had to throw herself forward, this time, however, she had to throw herself backwards, into the arms of Gavin Lee waiting to catch her, which is perhaps why at the first performance when he helped her back to her feet, as the cast trouped off stage, it took the tall leading lady a few moments, and another actor (James Vaughan)’s assistance to regain her balance. For the second performance Mr Lee did make sure the actress was properly on her feet.
Act 2 opens in The Pavilion Gardens of Le Petit Trion. Alisande tells Du Barry, Alex will try to come and see her, disguised as a monk, but needs a pass to get through the north gate, she has been unsuccessful in bribing the gatekeeper. Du Barry explains “The King cut down on all passes, only the royal family can write a pass now”; they plot to laugh a pass out of The Dauphin. Du Barry tells La Duchess to get ride of the crowd, but she won’t take orders from the Countess, so Alisande sends them to entertain his majesty, with the decks cleared Du Barry goes into action. The only thing The Dauphin wants in exchange for writing the pass is the watch chain Du Barry is wearing, so he can take it apart. This is the only scene between the Lost Musicals regulars Louise Gold and James Vaughan, and do they act it well. I would expect a polished professional convincing performance from Louise Gold. It is James Vaughan who is the real surprise. He got completely into character (and stayed there); I have never seen him act so well, with such a degree of complete professionalism.
Buoyed by her success, Du Barry hands to pass to Alisande to give to Alex, and tells he that if The King comes to, Give Him The Oo-La-La. I thought Kim Criswell sang this song incomparably on her solo album, but Louise Gold makes it very much her own, and incorporated how own gift for doing accents into it. She sings the excellent lyrics with complete clarity; so we can really hear them, and she cannot be accused of disregarding her diction, she was clearer than even the crystal clear Kim Criswell! It was particularly amusing to hear the line “just go Tallulah” sung by a woman once described as “Like a latter day Tallulah Bankhead, only somewhat less restrained”. One of the joys of watching this song actually performed on stage is being able to actually watch it being performed, Louise Gold is one of those singers (others include: Kim Criswell, and Jessica Martin) who makes a point of acting out songs, and she happens to be rather good at miming; In the first performance some of her movements during the line about If the tax man calls one day” did remind one a little of the dance numbers in Rich Man’s World in Mamma Mia, but (that could be because it’s such a hit show the slightest similarity will be reminiscent of it, and) there are only a limited number of ways of illustrating certain concepts, such as ‘money’, when acting out a song. For the second performance she kept her left hand on her hip during that line.
Alex arrives, Alisande sends him in to Du Barry. The Captain Of The Guard wanders in, and wonders why Alisande is so jittery, she cannot tell him. He says “You mustn’t go around showing you’re feelings like that, it isn’t being done”, a line which could have been taken as a tribute to the acting performances of a couple of their co-stars. They proceeded to illustrate how to not show ones feelings in smart society with Well Did You Evah? (What A Swell Party This Is); a song that has become a standard, because one of its original introducers, Charles Walters, incorporated it into a film he directed, High Society. I wondered if the song would still work in the 21 century over sixty years after it was originally written, but it went across quite well, Lauren Ward and Gavin Lee certainly did it justice, and again they danced it extremely well.
The King comes in, and Alisande is powerless to prevent him from finding out, thanks to La Duchess, that the gatekeeper, has let a stranger into the grounds. She is also powerless to prevent him from getting Alex recaptured. Du Barry, like the kind person she is, tries to save him, by telling The King a story that “28 years ago my dear mother found him on the steps of Notra Dame” and brought them up together, “he’s a sort of cousin”. The King does not really believe her, so Du Barry plays her trump card, she offers herself to The King, and he agrees, but on the condition that it must be “tonight or never”, Du Barry agrees to this, on condition that the prisoner is also released “tonight or never”. Suddenly The King lets out a yell of pain, he has been shot in the behind with an arrow. The Dauphin enters “Has anyone seen my arrow?” he asks innocently.
The guards lead Alex to the gate, and he explains that “you can’t do anything about love”, It Was Written In The Stars. Mark McKerracher has a fine strong voice and sang it splendidly.
In a room in the Palace, The King is waiting for a doctor to come and remove the arrow. To his irritation The Dauphin enters demanding his arrow, and Desmond Barrit’s muddled up King finds himself torn between the two halves of a Lost Musicals stalwart comedy double act. Just as The Dauphin retreats, much to The King’s embarrassment, Du Barry enters, she has come to see him to go to bed with him, and reminds him it is “Tonight or never”, he asks for a raincheck. As she retreats The Dauphin again enters demanding his arrow back. Although the doctor does manage to extract the arrow, The Dauphin promptly shoots him again, and so he is still torn between the pair, and moans “I don’t want to be King”.
The scene finds us back in the nightclub, with Kelly introducing May singing Katie Went To Haiti, another number that I always thought Kim Criswell had sung incomparably on her solo album, but which Louise Gold proves to make very much her own, really she deserves a solo album herself! Why do performers like Kim Criswell and Ruthie Henshall have the distinction of doing solo albums, but Louise Gold does not? This may have originally another of those numbers, like Buddy Beware in Anything Goes, and the title song in Red Hot & Blue, to allow time for a scene change. But whatever it’s function, it is a wonderful number, and it could not have been given to a better performer than Louise Gold. Tall and magnificent, she starts with her back to the audience, shimmying to the tune; she has a wonderful sense of rhythm, and moves beautifully. When it comes to the lyric she turns to face the audience, but still continues to dance around that stage, acting the number out with her whole body, mainly with: her characterful face, her broad powerful shoulders, and her skilful left hand - that somehow one cannot help noticing. There are few actresses who can really use their body language to such an extent when they are performing a song. She carried her scriptbook in her right hand, but hardly glanced at it. Indeed throughout the show, she at least, hardly seemed to need it. This really is Louise Gold at her very best. No one can do this sort of thing like she can. To borrow/adapt a little-known WWII song lyric, if we wanted to know the reason why this girl is playing the lead in this show, then we had only to look at that actress, singer and dancer in this number, and there’s our answer.
Alex enters, to tell May that Ann has agreed to a divorce, but wants $10,000.00, which he hasn’t got, May replied that she’ll wait for him, even if she has to wait sixty years. Meanwhile, Charley tells Kelly that he is quitting the job and going back on relief, he really cannot get the hang of it. Louis, now more or less awake, and on his feet realises he has learnt his lesson, Alex is the man for May. On hearing the bad news about Ann, Louis, who has been buying assets all day, still has $25,000.00 left, offers to give her the money, and writes the cheque, Friendship. This was one more high spot of a number, even if in the first performance: Desmond Barrit did manage to sing part of a line that didn’t belong to him, while in another verse Louise Gold only just managed not to corpse too noticeably. No such minor mishaps occurred in the second performance. The true star of the number is that experienced comedy actress and singer Louise Gold, who has after all, sung the number several times before. Although this is a Concert Staging, the performers really gave the number everything they’d got, and bounced it about in true comedy style. Standing side to side bumping into each others shoulders in time to the music, and generally performing the number. So it really went across extremely well.
Stewart Permutt enters in one of his stereotypical roles, Jones, a tax collector, to demand most of the remaining money in income tax. Harry and Alex then come and ask if they can have the $1,000.00 for their act, but he has no money left. He’s poor again, but he doesn’t mind, he has found out money can’t buy you happiness, although he would like a nickel so he can use the lavatory. May enters and announces they are all having a drink with Louis, and leads the cast in a rousing finale reprise of Come On In And See The Show and When Love Beckoned.
The show is a fantastic one. It has a whole bunch of wonderful Cole Porter songs; probably made just that bit better by the fact that he wrote them for a show starring the mighty Merman. In addition, Herbert Fields and Buddy G De Sylva have produced a wonderfully witty script (good even by the excellent standards of 1930’s musical comedy); but, however well written a script is, any line in it will only sound as good as the actor who delivers it. In this show we have quite a number actors who can deliver lines very well: Gavin Lee, Mark McKerracher, Stewart Permutt, and, Gabriella Santinelli all prove to be more than satisfactory; Desmond Barrit, James Vaughan and Lauren Ward handle it in fine style, while Louise Gold is particularly brilliant at showing us how truly delightful this script is.
All of the company were terrific: Stewart Permutt, Mark Siney, Chris Vincent, Jeremy David, Shula Kaye, Stephen Lloyd-Morgan, Jenna Sokolowski, Hannah Berry and Tanya Robb, all performed their parts well, and provided good support to the leads. Lauren Ward and Gavin Lee acted, sang and above all danced the Grable and Walters roles extremely well, and were one of the highlights of the evening. Mark McKerracher gave a sturdy steady performance, he has only been in one Lost Musical before but lets hope he does some more. Desmond Barrit, a newcomer to the Lost Musicals, took on a leading role and took it on well, managing on occasion the odd Bert Lahr imitation. Gabriella Santinelli played Vi Hennessy convincingly, with conviction, so that one did not really miss Myra Sands too much, although it would have been nice to see her in it, if only because she is such a fixture in these shows. It was a joy to see two other stalwarts of the Lost Musicals troupe once again starring together, Louise Gold and James Vaughan prove that on occasion they can act with the propriety and professional etiquette that a smart classy production, like this one, demands. In addition both actors also have musical voices, and are quite adept at dropping into little bursts of song, if it will improve a line, and are undoubtedly two of the best comedy actors in the Lost Musicals. For the second performance most of the cast loosened up, and in some cases camped things up a bit; James Vaughan, however, remained resolutely professional, while Louise Gold loosened up her performance a little, but was careful not to go too far. Thus, in this production, unlike their very funny, but rather irrepressible, contributions to Of Thee I Sing, these two accomplished actors actually set the standard for restraint and appropriate performance.
Once again Ian Marshall-Fisher has excelled himself, in many ways I think this production is one of his best yet, if not the best, not least because it starred wonderful Louise Gold in a part that is utterly perfect for her. Give her any role or indeed song written for Ethel Merman, or, a song written by Cole Porter, and she will “sing the song as it was intended”. I am fussy about how I like to hear Cole Porter sung, but I think I would always trust Louise Gold to sing it well. While she is often compared to Ethel Merman, and in a way this is very apt, because very few singers have such Mermanesque abilities to really sing with real power like that, and she probably is the closest thing we have to Ethel Merman; At the same time Louise Gold is always very much herself. There are some things she does when she sings, including in roles like this one, that are not only not what Merman would have done, but might not even have approved of. For example, Louise Gold has a genuine gift for accents if she wants to she can, and very often does, change accent and style 3 or 4 times a song. With some singers this would sound gimmicky, but when she does it, it actually works, and is a wonderful way of emphasising certain lyrics. Yet while she can be a very over-the-top-singer, Ms Gold also displays a remarkable sense of subtly, knowing when understatement can be even more effective than emphasis. Two years ago, watching her perform such numbers as You Gotta Get A Gimmick and I’m Still Here in Side By Side By Sondheim, I hoped that it would not be too long before we once again witness her make these good old fashioned musical numbers her own. She soon returned to the stage in Mamma Mia, acting and dancing wonderfully, but good though that show’s songs are, they do not quite show off Louise Gold’s brilliant talents, the way that material by writers such as Cole Porter does. It is a great delight to see her get a real chance to genuinely shine in her true glory. All the cast were fantastic, but it is, that doyenne of the Lost Musicals, Louise Gold’s show, and deservedly so.