Little Mary Sunshine

Little-Mary-CDOriginal Off-Broadway Cast, 1959 (Capitol/Angel) 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5) Not too long after Sandy Wilson proved with The Boy Friend that audiences enjoyed spoofs of old musicals, Rick Besoyan wrote the book, music, and lyrics to this hilarious send-up. It ranks with the Wilson opus as head-and-shoulders above every subsequent satire of the genre. Besoyan’s target is operetta of the type that Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert were turning out in the early 20th century. Throughout the narrative about forest rangers, finishing-school maidens, and a few Native Americans, the clever author lines up every cliché of the art form as if setting ducks in a row, then shoots every one down with great delight. There’s the love chant (“Colorado Love Call”), the cheer-up ditty (“Look for a Sky of Blue”), the marching song (“The Forest Rangers”), the fun-time contrapuntal choral pieces (“Playing Croquet,” “Swinging,” “How Do You Do?”), the salute-to-the-old-country tune (“In Izzenschnooken on the Essenzook Zee”), the novelty number (“Mata Hari”), and a darling title song. All are tuneful and amusing. Leading the large cast, Eileen Brennan became the toast of downtown as the sunny title character, instigating lots of laughs with her silvery voice and cunning delivery. John McMartin and Elmarie Wendel are the secondary love interests. In the theater, the score was played on twin pianos, but for this recording, Capitol provided a full orchestra. Rick Besoyan almost entirely disappeared after popping the cork on this bottle of champagne. It’s interesting to note that, while he framed Little Mary as primarily a send-up of shows such as Naughty Marietta, it seems he was also spoofing the Princess Theatre musicals that Jerome Kern, P. G. Wodehouse, and Guy Bolton turned out 100 years ago. And he may have had Leave It to Jane specifically in mind; “Mata Hari“ is very close to “Cleopatterer” from that score, and “You’ve Got to Hand It to Little Mary Sunshine” is practically a rewrite of Jane‘s title song. — David Finkle

Little-MaryOriginal London Cast, 1962  (Capitol/DRG) 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)  One of the earliest Off-Broadway musical clicks,  Little Mary Sunshine didn’t knock out the Brits when it opened at the Comedy, the small West End theater that’s now known as the Harold Pinter — this so-so reception despite the fact that the sunny-humored title character was played by Patricia Routledge, six years before she came to Manhattan and became the darling of the day in Darling of the Day. As evidenced by the cast recording, there was no attempt by anyone in this Paddy Stone-directed production to veer from native Mayfair accents to sound like Colorado denizens, including Native Americans speaking broken English. (The cliché portrayal of Native Americans would no doubt present a political correctness problem in a contemporary revival stateside.) The London cast sings Rick Besoyan’s score as if it were an opera or an operetta. Predictably, Routledge, ever the comedienne, gives a rollicking performance as Mary. The only other familiar name (to some, at least) is Bernard Cribbins. He and all the others, conducted by Philip Mirwell, are pristine in their delivery. Although Besoyan cited American operetta influences for this musical, the English accents here often conjure thoughts of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan — the fathers, grandfathers, and now great-great-grandfathers of this whole shebang. — D.F.