The monarch on a busman’s holiday in the real world who falls in love with a commoner is an old Hollywood formula that has been played out by such diverse royal highnesses as Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday , Ezio Pinza in Mr. Imperium and Hedy Lamarr in Her Highness and the Bellboy . But the commoner who actually ascends the throne is a commodity that is harder to come by. Think Grace Kelly. Think Queen Noor. Now think Julia Stiles in The Prince and Me .
This new romantic fairy tale, directed by Martha Coolidge, is not exactly patterned after la princesse de Philadelphie , but Paige Morgan, the all-American blonde played by Julia Stiles, looks peachy in a king’s ransom worth of crown jewels. She’s a girl from Wisconsin whose friends are engaged, getting married and relinquishing their independence. She rebels by going to med school. Meanwhile, way off in some castle in Elsinore, blond, blue-eyed Prince Edward Valdemar Dangaard of Denmark (camera-ready Luke Mably) is no Hamlet, although he is always in trouble with fast cars and even faster peasants. Eschewing family tradition, he figures that what he needs is a year in Wisconsin to meet foxy American college girls, see. So he passes himself off as an ordinary guy named Eddie and moves into a cramped dorm with his valet/guardian/baby-sitter/best friend Soren (Ben Miller). When the campus gets a look at the valet, who irons his shirts and makes him eggs Benedict on a hot plate, everyone thinks that Eddie is gay. A new infatuation with Paige, his lab partner in chemistry class, eases the tension, and when he accompanies her home to her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm for Thanksgiving, the friendship heats up even more. Nothing like milking cows to set a crown prince’s hormones raging. Her skeptical brothers are still suspicious, until he shows them how to soup up the engines on their riding mowers for the local tractor race. What a sport: the future king of Denmark, wearing yellow hats shaped like wedges of cheddar cheese and racing the local rednecks on riding lawnmowers. Now everyone’s in love with Eddie, even the cows. They still don’t know he’s a prince hiding out incognito-until, that is, the ink-stained wretches from the tabloids charge onto the campus and blow his cover. Now it’s Ms. Stiles’ turn to house-guest. In Denmark, she rides through the golden gates of the royal palace on her dreamboat’s royal stallion. Overnight, she turns from a Purina Feed ad into Princess Di. Now it’s the king and queen of Denmark (James Fox and Miranda Richardson) who raise their eyebrows condescendingly. But nothing can deter the prince. This is the kind of love that Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney dreamed about, and Ms. Stiles is all set to produce royal babies. But then the screenwriters get a dose of royal guilt and bring Paige to her senses. Who can stand all those trips on the royal yacht, picnics on the royal riverbanks, couturier gowns for the royal ball and seven-course dinners on gold china in the palace dining room when you can go home to dissect frogs in bio-science class? You can hear the groans of girls from 9 to 19 all the way to Copenhagen. But wait! Miraculously, Paige’s American ingenuity, pragmatism and unselfish influence on the prince turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the monarchy. Cue trumpets. Fade to Cinderella finale. Get that big farmhouse foot into that glass slipper, girl. This movie is going for a happy ending even if it kills everybody on the payroll.
The situations in The Prince and Me never delve beneath the surface of contrivance, so the characters are never truly believable. But Julia Stiles is such a fetching actress that her sincerity camouflages make-believe better than anything you can buy at Bergdorf’s. Director Martha Coolidge has flexed her feminist muscles on many occasions, but this time the material offers her no edge at all. Mostly, she just lets the pretty Ms. Stiles and the even prettier Mr. Mably do their stuff while the film keeps rolling, and she’s wise enough to get out of the way. The resulting confection is so sweet it could give you diabetes, but how can you get tough with a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve like a smile button?
It must be in the genes. You’ve heard about sisters named Andrews, brothers named Smothers, families of Fondas and assorted Baldwins, Arquettes and Gabors. Now here come the Callaways! One of New York’s cabaret treasures, Ann Hampton Callaway, is a jazz high priestess, and her sister Liz is one of Broadway’s most talented but underrated stars-in-waiting. Together, they are knocking them dead at Feinstein’s at the Regency with a high-flying show that embraces all of the styles they have mastered in their separate careers. It’s nothing short of terrific. In the arid territory that signifies what’s left of the dying swank supper-club scene, they already made a blinding impact nine years ago with an act called Sibling Revelry . (You can buy it on CD.) Relative Harmony , the clever new act they’re unveiling now, is a sort of star-spangled sequel in which both sisters polish off the art of what they do best, together and apart, when somebody shows them a piano and says, “Go, girls, go!” The results are sophisticated, humorous and intensely, relentlessly musical.
Ann wraps her celebrated chops around the contrapuntal chords of the jazz riff “Cloudburst,” then Liz meets the ultimate challenge of absurd meters, unpronounceable syllables, daunting modulations and shifting tempos from Stephen Sondheim, singing “Another Hundred Lyrics Just Flew Out of My Brain” to the tune of you-know-what tongue-twisting classic from Company ! When Ann good-naturedly interrupts Liz’s applause to show off her awards for her singing-songwriting accomplishments, Liz holds up her Emmy. (Both have been Tony-nominated, too.) If Liz warms the cockles with the kind of 11 o’clock numbers she has perfected in shows like Baby and Cats , then Ann stops the heart with a powerful, throaty and adrenaline-pumped torch arrangement of Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked into My Life” from Mame that makes you wonder why she isn’t starring on Broadway in a show of her own. If Ann electrifies with jazz pyrotechnics, Liz demonstrates how adaptable she is in her sister’s milieu with some hot licks of her own. When the versatility and harmony of their two styles blend on an awesome Harold Arlen juxtaposition of “Stormy Weather” and “When the Sun Comes Out,” the craft, musicianship and pure beauty of their voices is as good as it gets. Doubling your pleasure like the Doublemint twins, they are all of the King Sisters rolled into one and cut in half to go around. If there were any more like them at home, it would be too much for the neighborhood.
With so many jazz, swing, pop and show tunes to cover, there’s only one thing left to do. Yes, there’s a killer medley that leaves no stone unturned, no style unexplored and no customer underwhelmed. On 18 songs, from “Bosom Buddies” to “Ohio” to “Happy Days Are Here Again,” their voices blend and soar and intertwine like two colorful balloons in the breeze over Central Park. Most cabaret acts amount to nothing more than misinformed, misguided amateurs grinding through all the wrong songs in mewling agony. After what I’ve suffered through lately, it is not only gratifying to hear real, genuine, supersonic talent on a cabaret stage, but downright miraculous as well. Get hip to the Callaways and learn what a great cabaret act is all about.
Pardon Me, Please
Into every popular and successful theater tradition, some rain must eventually fall. But in the case of “Encores!” at City Center, the second production of the 2004 season, George and Ira Gershwin’s 1933 musical flop Pardon My English , was more like a monsoon.
One of the pleasures of this series of staged concerts of shows that haven’t been seen for decades is trying to figure out why they weren’t better appreciated in their own day. In the case of Pardon My English , the question on a number of minds was why this paralyzing farce was ever produced in the first place. I could name a dozen shows worthy of a slick “Encores!” refurbishing without pausing for a comma. Pardon My English would never be one of them. There’s no dishonor in failure, but this show was such a catastrophe from the beginning that even Ira Gershwin has gone on record as hating every minute of it. Writers and directors came and went, cast members were replaced, the original star (Jack Buchanan) walked out during the out-of-town previews, and what New Yorkers finally saw on Jan. 20, 1933, was a dismal mess that folded after 46 performances. In his famous book Lyrics on Several Occasions , Ira Gershwin wrote: “Opening night in New York, I stood among the few standees, but only for the first twenty minutes. A bad cold and a lukewarm audience had me home by 9:30.”
No wonder. The show made audiences nervous from the overture on, for good reason. Here, at the height of the Depression-at the same time that Hitler rose to power in Germany-was a show set in a Dresden speakeasy that opens with German customers and waiters singing “Drink, drink, drink … to the dear old Fatherland!” (According to historian Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle , published by Oxford University Press, the show’s German setting was disturbing to many in light of the daily headlines; the night it closed, Berlin’s Reichstag burned.) Between what Ira Gershwin called “the worst lyric I ever wrote” (“I gave up pie and ice cream / ‘Cause your lips make better desserts / You’ll pardon my Polish / But you’re the nerts!”) and dialogue like “Oh, my pulchritudinous parlor maid from Potsdam!”, the muddled plot is about six addled psychiatrists examining the case of a split personality, one of whom is an English secret agent with a passion for American gangster films, and the other a German bootlegger named Golo Schmidt who is also the criminal ringleader of a gang of thieves who rob the home of a Dresden police commissioner, who is also the sauerkraut king. (The alter egos were both played with a large helping of ham and sung with accompanying relish by Brian D’Arcy James.) There is also something about a pair of Americans who are wrongly arrested for the robbery and a 40-pound liverwurst. This is quite enough, thank you-an assessment with which the appalled looks on the faces of the first-nighters around me at this “Encores!” fiasco seemed to agree. Under the circumstances, it is worth noting that three notable songs emerged from the otherwise awkward and brainless score. “My Cousin from Milwaukee” and “The Lorelei” were both turned into showstoppers by the always splendid Emily Skinner. Stealing the show as buxom Polish chanteuse Gita Gobel, “the Knightengale from Kracow,” she was as guttural and too-Teutonic as Madeleine Kahn impersonating Marlene Dietrich in Blazing Saddles . And “Isn’t it a Pity” originated here, too. Would you believe that it was a duet between two lovers-a world-traveling British agent who can’t speak German and a non-English-speaking daughter of the sauerkraut king? Which finally explains the beloved lyric, “You reading Heine / I, somewhere in China.” You learn the darnedest things at “Encores!”-some of which are better left unknown, if you ask me.
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