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'Little Me' review, Christian Borle soars

Rachel York and Christian Borle in

Rachel York and Christian Borle in "Little Me" at Encores. Credit: Joan Marcus

The "me" in "Little Me" is a feisty climber named Belle, whose adventures from the wrong side of the tracks to stardom are the basis of an apocryphal memoir that frames this genial little demi-classic. But the real star (and singular is correct) of the 1962 musical comedy has always been the guys -- the six husbands and gentleman callers -- who pay and pave her way to diva-dom.

Sid Caesar played them all in the first production, which critic Walter Kerr commended for its "engaging interior ease," praising Caesar's tour de force for its poise and hauteur. When Martin Short starred in a 1998 revival, alas, the zaniness was so hard-driven it felt frantic and desperate.

How delightful then to have the Encores! series of semi-staged revivals turn the show back into a sly, deceptively smart fluff ball, filled with sharp comic throwaways by Neil Simon (in his first musical) and such surprisingly touching, clever songs by Carolyn Leigh and Cy Coleman as "I Love You (As Much as I Am Able)" and "Real Live Girl."

But the best news comes from director John Rando, in his most lovable staging since "Urinetown," and, especially, Christian Borle as the men in Belle's life. If Borle were not already a Tony winner for "Peter and the Starcatcher" and one of the best things in NBC's unlamented "Smash," we could consider this a star-making performance.

Let's do it anyway. With his bedroom eyes, his kaleidoscopically funny/sad face and seemingly endless easygoing gifts, Borle takes on Belle's snooty childhood love, her goofy French cabaret singer, her overwrought German director, her ancient benefactor, her sweet, moronic husband and the others with, yes, genuine poise and hauteur. No mugging for this fellow, who can sing, tap and switch silly accents without ever losing contact with the heart.

This is one of the more lavishly produced Encores! investments, with more costumes and sets than most. Is the show worth all this effort, which includes acrobatic choreography that, admirably, doesn't try to be that of original choreographer Bob Fosse?

Probably not. But Rachel York is both earthy and elegant as the young Belle, and Judy Kaye has matronly imperiousness down pat as the aging broad (roles split in the original but both played by Faith Prince in 1998). The cast is full of pros -- old and young. And Borle virtuosically manages to be both.


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